Flying Blind

Why won’t airlines abandon (or upgrade) the black box system?
by Gordon Campbell

Lets imagine an industry that prides itself on its modern technology. Yet its basic service is a chronic source of anxiety to many of its customers, partly because (very occasionally) this industry suffers catastrophic accidents that kill everyone who is using a particular instance of its service at the time.

No prizes for guessing that I’m talking about the airline industry. You’d think airlines would be keen on using the most modern technology possible to determine the causes of air accidents. And if airlines won’t do it willingly, you’d also expect that governments would be forcing them to get their act together. Right?

But no, that’s not what’s happening. The May 19 EgyptAir MS 804 crash in the Mediterranean is only the latest example of the airline industry failing its customers. After considerable delays, the black boxes for that fatal flight were finally located and recovered, but they had been damaged by saltwater. So the black boxes were flown to Paris for repairs, after which they were flown back to Egypt for analysis.

The continued reliance of the airline industry on this antiquated, risk-riddled system – the whereabouts of the black boxes have to be located within a month, or they’re lost forever – seems utterly incredible. Time and again, black boxes are lost, or get damaged by mid-air explosion or by the force of impact. Again and again, there is a headlong panic to find the boxes before the sonar pings fall silent, as they do after only a month.

How on earth do airlines continue to get away with this antiquated black box nonsense? The technology already exists for all the relevant data on an aircraft to be relayed in real time back to a central reception point, as a routine part of aircraft operations. Accidents could then be immediately analysed and causes identified within days, at most. No one should be left dependent on data contained in a fallible, easily lost, readily damaged black box. Even if airlines persist with this system, the US military routinely operates with automatically ejected, flotation–equipped versions of black boxes. On impact, all airline black boxes should now be bobbing on the surface., not lost somewhere 50 fathoms deep with a life cycle recovery period of only a month.

This system is being maintained only in order to enable airlines to avoid the glare of immediate culpability for their accidents. This way, it can dripfeed its explanations. In the interim, this only encourages speculation. Was this crash due to terrorism, or to a catastrophic technical failure ? At the time of the EgyptAir 804 crash, terrorism was being fingered as the probable cause and even Donald Trump weighed into the morass of speculation with his usual ‘it was Islamic terrorism’ scare messages.

Now, however, prosecutors in Paris are ruling out terrorism as a likely cause. As this recent report indicates, the probable cause was a fire on board, due to a technical failure, and not to terrorism:

The cockpit voice recorder, is still waiting to be read, as the BEA is working to restore the device in its laboratory in France. Both black boxes were severely damaged as they were retrieved from the seabed at a depth of 13,000 feet (4,000 meters) on June 16 and June 17 by the search boat John Lethbridge, just a week before they were supposed to cease sending signals. Details of the cabin crew’s conversation are expected to resolve the mystery surrounding the causes of the A320 airliner tragedy, with the evidence increasingly suggesting the plane was brought down by some kind of a technical failure…..

Prior to the black boxes` discovery, the flight experts came up with a vast spectrum of different versions of what could have brought the plane down, ranging from hijacking or sabotage to the explosion on board.

Those cabin crew conversations also now indicate a technical failure, not terrorism.

Not good enough. Passengers deserve to know that airlines are doing all they can to discover the cause of the rare but cataclysmic accidents that will always occur. Bereaved relatives deserve better treatment than this avoidable and upsetting reliance upon guesswork, for weeks and months afterwards.

Moreover, if real time in- flight data transmission was being routinely collected, this information would be in a centralized place, accessible to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). We would not be being left dependent on the integrity of the national government of say, Egypt, when it comes to the analysis of the black boxes. The current black box system entrusts such analysis (and disclosure) to sovereign governments who – for obvious reasons – may be very reluctant to release bad news about their fallible tourism carriers.

The airline industry was worth an estimated $US746 billion globally, in 2014. It could easily afford both (a) in flight data transmission in real time and (b) ejectable, floatable, black boxes. If airlines won’t carry out this technology upgrade voluntarily, surely governments should force them to do so, by making it a condition of their license to operate.

4 Comments on Flying Blind

  1. Couldn’t agree more. The technology for satellite real time monitory of aircraft has been available for many years now and it’s criminal that governments haven’t acted collectively to deal to this. But then airlines have successfully managed to avoid fuel duties, as they, and us, continue to poison our climate with CO2.

    But please recall that this dismay about the behaviour of airlines comes from a country that doesn’t even mandate tachographs in heavy goods vehicles.The 2010 Breen report (based on 2004 recommendations) on road safety includes this paragraph: Recommendation 28
    Early implementation of a New Zealand heavy goods vehicle safety strategy is recommended which should include: an effective inspection system for vehicle defects and penalties which improve performance; incentives for semi-trailer use rather than low tare multi-axle trailer; the mandatory fitment of in-vehicle speed limiters on heavy goods vehicles; the mandatory provision for fitment of frontal, rear and side under-run guards; mandatory seat belt use; legislative restrictions on working and driving time which better reflect needs identified by research to reduce cumulative fatigue and the use of tachographs for law enforcement; and the introduction of an operator safety rating system (which also reflects early voluntary take-up of these measures) (Section 9.9.4).

    I am happy to be corrected but I doubt a single one of these recommendations has been acted on. Certainly not tachographs, which have been compulsory in Europe since 1986. In recent years deaths from crashes involving trucks have made up around 15 to 19 percent of the total road toll, while only about 6 percent of the total distance travelled on NZ roads is travelled by trucks.

    Of course these two issues are not mutually exclusive of the need for attention. But I mention it to show how even relatively low-tech apparatus which is seen as any sort of impediment to profit or cost cutting, even if lives are put at risk, can be so successfully resisted for so many years by powerful players in industry, and in NZ the road transport lobby is one of the major lobbying forces in this country.

  2. This reads like an uninformed unresearched opinion article. With the link to Scoop and their much publicised criticism on NZ journalism I expected more. Has the author actually spoken to experts on the relevant topics?

    To start with it is asserted that the block box must be “located within a month, or they’re lost forever”. There is no evidence supplied to support this claim other than a single example in which the aircraft “crashed in the deepest part of the Mediterranean” [from Reuters article linked to above]. So presumably the black box was found at a depth of approximately 5,000m (max dept of Mediterranean) which would equate to over 7000psi of pressure. Whether it is possible or practical to build a black box that is able to withstand this amount of pressure and still be able to have data recorded to it in the first place is a point that seems totally ignored.

    Gordon Campbell then goes on to assert that the “technology already exists for all the relevant data on an aircraft to be relayed in real time back to a central reception point”. Really? Are you sure? You do know that they don’t get WiFi or 4G up there, right? It is my understanding that the aircraft are flying about 10km above the earth’s surface leaving the only communications possible being either low bandwidth long wave radio transmission or satellites. Geosynchronous satellites like those used for satellite television orbit at around 35,000km (or 34,990km higher than the aircraft) and are stationary relative to the earth. For these reasons they require large dishes to focus the signal (especially for sending data) and highly accurate aiming as any satellite television installer will be able to tell you. Now I might be wrong but this seems impractical for an aircraft traveling at 500kph that relies on aerodynamics to stay in the air.

    This leaves medium (eg GPS) and low earth orbit (eg ISS and iridium) satellites that use unfocused broadcast communications. Due to the broadcast nature of these signals the bandwidth is inherently shared among all users of the radio spectrum both on the ground and the other 10,000 aircraft that can be in the air at the same time (during the US working day).

    If we were just talking about telemetry data then I am prepared to believe that sufficient bandwidth is readily available but the article proceeds to point out that the important information that shed light on the EgyptAir 804 disaster came from the cockpit voice recorder. To digitally transmit this date live, in real time would require an order of magnitude more bandwidth than the telemetry data, especially as given the high background noise and multiple people involved it would need to be at reasonably high resolution to be useful.

    Finally that the military use automatically ejected, floating black boxes is hardly relevant given that they presumably use explosives to eject them (as they do ejection seats) and they have a much, much higher risk acceptance than commercial aircraft.

    If Gordon Campbell had spoken to experts in these matters this article would carry more weight as a piece of journalism but, unfortunately, this is more in the realm of “a guy down the pub said…”

    Disclaimer: I am not an aircraft or satellite communications expert just a computer network engineer with high speed access to Google.

  3. From Gordon Campbell:

    @ Brendhan

    I’m puzzled by your dismissive tone and assertions. Public pressure of the sort I’m advocating has seen the airline industry treble the battery life that generates the sonar pings for the black boxes detectable in the ocean depths. Older black box sonar cut out after only 30 days – as reported during the search for Malaysian Airlines MH370 – but newer models now transmit sonar for 90 days. Similar pressure will see the airline industry eventually replace the black box system with real time data streaming. In the interim, black boxes – including the cockpit data black box – could be made automatically flotation capable, as suggested in my article.

    As for the core issue of real time data streaming…again, I’m puzzled at the scepticism about an advance already on stream and which is also being driven – as my article indicated – by recent disasters that have shown the drawbacks of our reliance on black box technology. This recent article in Aviation Today makes that point:

    ….Following the disappearance of Air France 447 and, more recently, Malaysia Airlines MH370, the focus is turning to companies bringing systems to market that can deliver aircraft position information and stream data in real time. Companies are developing these technologies over both ground and satellite links to track aircraft with increasing frequency and stream Flight Data Recorder (FDR) data to the ground in an effort to help operators to keep tabs on aircraft at all times.

    Already, there is a sophisticated aircraft real time positioning system. What I was advocating is an enhanced version. If there was an error in my original article it was in over-stating the current availability of this technology. However, I did correctly flag the direction in which the industry is headed, and the factors driving it. True, this wasn’t a 4,000 word treatise on the fine detail; but within a brief editorial piece, Scoop/Werewolf also provided a detailed timeline of an example – EgyptAir Flight 804 – that demonstrates how the current state of black box technology contributes to false alarms about terrorism, and to anti-Muslim scare-mongering by Donald Trump. Real time data streaming will soon rescue us from that kind of thing.

  4. Campbell is entirely correct on real time data transfer and monitoring.
    The capabilities have been use by Navy, air force and merchant shipping for decades, now.
    However, like trucking in NZ, industry lobbyists and donations to politicians decide legislation.

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