Malaysia Airline declined Boeing data plan to track planes

Malaysian Airline System opted out of a Boeing service to collect real-time performance data from jets like Flight 370 for use in planning maintenance, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The carrier harvests the same information itself, said the person, who asked not to be identified because Flight 370 is under investigation. The search for the missing Boeing 777-200 entered a fifth day Wednesday, leaving investigators baffled as to what was happening on board the plane when radar contact was lost less than an hour into a March 8 flight to Beijing.

Having Boeing’s Airplane Health Management program potentially would have provided a backup to the airline’s own surveillance of the plane, said David Greenberg, a former operations executive at Delta Air Lines. Boeing pulls in that information to mine data and help airlines spot mechanical faults early, giving carriers a new window on their operations.

“It’s like having a cellphone right next to your desk next to your landline,” said Greenberg, a Chicago-based consultant.

Onboard computers track performance of pivotal airplane systems and send the information to airlines through a messaging technology known as the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System, or Acars. Boeing taps the same computer data via satellite links for subscribers to its service.

About 75 percent of Boeing 777s, the planemaker’s biggest twin-engine model, use the maintenance and monitoring program, according to a 2013 company presentation.

Airlines get “a set of predefined prognostic monitors and alerts that trigger prior to system failures,” covering components as varied as the engines and air conditioning, according to a Boeing fact sheet for its maintenance program.

A spokesman for Malaysian Air referred questions about the in-flight communications system to a company statement, in which the carrier said all contact was lost with Flight 370 as it approached Vietnamese airspace. The airline didn’t immediately respond when asked about the Boeing program.

“All Malaysia Airlines aircraft are equipped with continuous data monitoring system called the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) which transmits data automatically,” the carrier said. “Nevertheless, there were no distress calls and no information was relayed.”

Wilson Chow, a spokesman for Chicago-based Boeing, declined to comment about Malaysian Air.

The carrier does have a data-sharing agreement with engine maker Rolls-Royce Holdings for its wide-body fleet. New Scientist magazine reported, without saying where it got the information, that the missing 777 sent two bursts of data before contact was lost.

“We continue to monitor the situation and provide our full support to Malaysia Airlines,” said Richard Hedges, a spokesman for London-based Rolls-Royce. He declined to elaborate.

Airborne communiques from planes to engine-makers are routine for jetliners, Greenberg said.

In the Boeing program, airplanes typically transmit data from onboard systems and engines to the planemaker and carriers’ ground operations, allowing mechanics to have parts at the ready to deal with break-downs that occur during flight. The planemaker also prepares alerts and reports on “important maintenance-related events.”

Services such as Boeing’s “are not designed to be inflight advisory systems,” said John Hansman, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “They are really designed to be post-flight maintenance systems.”

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