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.