Push on for new ways to track airliners

TOULOUSE, France — Clinging to wreckage in the Indian Ocean, Bahia Bakari could hear the cries of other plane-crash survivors in the darkened waters around her.

As the night wore on and no rescuers arrived, the voices gradually silenced until there were none, she said afterward, according to France’s Bureau of Investigations and Analysis. It wasn’t until hours later in daylight that a boat from the Comoros Islands picked up the 14-year-old, the lone survivor among 153 people on a Yemenia Airways flight that plunged into the sea in 2009.

Cases like the Yemenia crash and Malaysian Airline System Flight 370, missing since March 8 in the longest disappearance in modern passenger-airline history, are spurring calls by global safety groups to require better technology to help rescuers and investigators find planes in remote areas.

A quick rescue

“They would have gotten to those people within probably a half an hour and many of them would have been rescued” if the plane had systems pinpointing where it went down, said Blake van den Heuvel, a director of business development at DRS Technologies, which makes crash-proof locator devices.

The obstacles to better and mandatory flight tracking are less about technology than whether improvements are worth the cost, since so few planes disappear, and about whether to upset a decades-old philosophy that pilots should be able to shut down electronic components in emergencies.

“It is absolutely unacceptable in today’s day and age to not know where an airplane is,” said Dave Barger, chief executive officer of JetBlue Airways Corp.

Quest for solutions

The quest for solutions sweeps in global regulators, airlines and aerospace manufacturers. Depending on the enhancements ordered, from real-time satellite monitoring to black boxes that would float after a water impact, the cost of improvements could be more than $1 billion, far exceeding the costs of the Malaysia Air search so far.

Most airliners now are equipped with emergency locator beacons that don’t work under water and data recorders whose battery-powered homing signals will last only about 30 days.

After Air France Flight 447 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean June 1, 2009, killing all 228 aboard, it took almost two years to find the wreckage.

The lag time prompted the French BEA, as the accident investigator is known, to urge the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization to study aircraft-tracking improvements.

The BEA identified two areas with the most potential: requiring airliners to regularly transmit location, even over polar and ocean regions, and adding a flight recorder that would jettison from a plane and float after a crash in water.

Constant data

Another solution would be to send a constant stream of data to ground stations on the plane’s path and performance, said Chris McLaughlin, a spokesman for London-based satellite provider Inmarsat. That data would replicate at least part of the function of the so-called black box recorders, he said.

Many planes have satellite-communication capability and would need only a software upgrade to report position. Still, airlines would have to pay for added data transmissions, just as mobile-phone customers pay for texts and data downloads. The costs of those transmissions would vary widely, depending on what satellite packages they buy.

Also, the system most airlines use sends data at speeds of 1990s modems, McLaughlin said. That’s far too slow to handle real-time data streams. Boeing and Inmarsat are working together to develop a high-speed data network to be available within a few years, McLaughlin said.

A burst of data

Because of the cost and transmission limitations, an ICAO group studying the issue is developing standards for a compromise system. It would send a burst of data to satellites if a plane’s systems detected an emergency, said James Cash, the former chief technical adviser for recorders at the National Transportation Safety Board.

Most airliners flying international routes are equipped to report their positions every minute or two, said Cash, who worked with the ICAO group until his retirement last month. At least two carriers, Air France and cargo-carrier FedEx, have begun tracking their planes that way, he said.

Like other types of cockpit communications, such data reporting wouldn’t help track a plane if pilots purposely disabled it, he said. The data-communications system transmitting a jet’s location, known by the acronym ACARS, was apparently switched off on the missing Boeing 777.

Pilots are used to having their every move followed by data-hungry airlines and wouldn’t mind some forms of real-time monitoring, said Sean Cassidy, a pilot and safety chief of the Air Line Pilots Association.

Cockpit conversations

They would object if conversations from the cockpit were transmitted over airwaves, or carriers used data to punish flight crews, Cassidy said. ALPA is the largest pilot union in North America.

Pilots also want to retain the ability to switch off ACARS and transponders used to identify a plane to controllers on the ground, he said. The only way to halt an electrical fire may be to cut power to a malfunctioning piece of equipment, he said.

The Malaysian jetliner, carrying 239 people to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur, vanished after the transponder system was shut off. The way the plane then turned off course toward Malaysia and out into the ocean has convinced investigators someone sought to cloak its path, according to Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Investigators have estimated Flight 370’s likely final location by analyzing hourly pings between the plane and an Inmarsat satellite above the equator. That imprecise method forced searchers to spread out over 83,784 square miles of open water.

The Flight Safety Foundation, a non-profit group, and the International Air Transport Association, a Montreal-based industry group, recently endorsed some form of flight monitoring or emergency beacons.

New proposals

They’re working together to develop proposals by the end of the year, said Ken Hylander, acting president and CEO of the foundation.

It’s premature to begin discussing specific technologies or security measures until more is known about the Malaysia flight, said Vaughn Jennings, a spokesman for the Washington-based trade group Airlines for America.

The plane-tracking system that received the highest total score for practicality and cost in the BEA’s analysis was a combination black-box recorder and emergency-locator beacon that would break away from a plane during a crash.

Some of the Australian planes combing the Indian Ocean for the Malaysian 777 are equipped with these deployable recorders, DRS’s van den Heuvel said. DRS Technologies, a Crystal City, Va., subsidiary of Italy’s Finmeccanic, has sold about 5,000 of the devices, mostly for military aircraft such as the Boeing F-18 fighter jet, he said.

Other aerospace suppliers, such as Britain’s HR Smith Group, make similar products.

The devices can’t be shut off by a pilot and haven’t failed in accidents occurring below supersonic speeds, he said. The emergency-locator beacons transmit Global Positioning System coordinates to satellites once triggered, helping rescuers know within minutes where to hunt for wreckage, van den Heuvel said.

Floating black boxes

Adding floating black boxes to existing jets could cost as much as several hundred thousand dollars per aircraft, Cash said.

Installing the device in a new plane costs about $30,000, van den Heuvel said.

Less may be better, in that ambitious plans with costs to match will probably fail, said Robert Mann, president of R.W. Mann &Co. aviation consultancy and a former American Airlines executive. Mann suggested an uninterruptible, once-a-minute stream of 16 bytes broadcasting the plane’s identification, latitude, longitude, altitude, heading and speed.

“That would have made all the difference in the world to locate MH370,” he said.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which would set standards for tracking equipment, is working with industry and international groups, the agency said.

Regardless of what technology regulators and airlines choose, the spectacle of a multimillion-dollar plane carrying 239 people vanishing demands a response, said Hylander, of the Alexandria, Va., Flight Safety Foundation.

“We really as an industry have to figure out how to do better,” he said.


  • Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott is warning that the massive search for the missing airliner will likely be a long one.
  • No new electronic pings have been heard since April 8, and the batteries powering the locator beacons on the jet’s black box recorders may already be dead.
  • After analyzing satellite data, officials believe the plane flew off course for an unknown reason and went down in the southern Indian Ocean off Australia’s west coast.
  • Abbott expressed confidence that the signals heard by an Australian ship, which was towing a U.S. Navy device that listens for flight recorder pings, were coming from the missing Boeing 777’s black boxes.
  • The underwater search zone is currently a 500-square-mile patch of the seabed, about the size of Los Angeles.
  • Once officials are confident no more sounds will be heard, a robotic submersible will be sent down to slowly scour for wreckage across a vast area in extremely deep water.
  • The submersible device will need about six weeks to two months to canvass the current underwater zone.

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