While it may seem to many of you as if the Malaysian Airlines 370 story has been going on forever, we’re really only into the opening scenes of this investigation. Remember it took two years to recover the data recorders from Air France 447.
Even though everyone seems to believe we’re close to the area where MH370 hit the water, there still hasn’t been a single ounce of evidence recovered from the ocean’s surface in that area. I would have thought something would still be floating … suitcases, seat cushions, clothing … something.
Be that as it may, even if the boxes are found, they’re sitting on the ocean floor three miles beneath the surface which means the recovery effort is no small task.
The Chicago Tribune last week asked me to write an editorial putting what we know into context. It ran Friday and I focused on the fact that there are already plenty of good people leading the search efforts and the why behind most of this accident will come later. But I do think we have already learned quite a bit about where the airline industry needs to head in the next few years … if we can just convince the airlines of course.
During a radio interview on Friday, the host asked me about Plan B if these signals turn out not to be from MH370. Honestly, there is no plan B …
Because the Chicago Tribune website made it a bit difficult for many of you to read the story, I’ve pasted the text in here, as well as the direct link if you’d like to sign in there to read more. Do tell me what you think.
Rob Mark, Publisher
By Robert P. Mark
April 11, 2014
When word came Saturday that two ships had locked in on deep-sea radio signals that might pinpoint the missing Malaysian Boeing 777, many people began breathing a bit easier.. How, in a day when we can track our kids’ whereabouts through their cellphones, could a 650,000-pound airplane with 227 people aboard vanish without a trace?
But even if the signals did come from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370’s data recorders, finding the remnants of the aircraft, much less two small black boxes somewhere on the nearly 3-mile-deep ocean floor, is a huge task. The underwater search requires an unmanned submersible submarine to accurately map the ocean floor before any efforts to raise debris can be considered. That takes time and money. It took nearly two years and tens of millions of dollars to recover the data recorders from Air France Flight 447, which crashed into the South Atlantic Ocean in 2009. Some estimates claim the Malaysia Airlines search could cost more than $40 million.
Many aviation industry experts are now demanding changes to prevent another airplane from simply disappearing off the radarscopes. Last week, the Air Line Pilots Association said, “Technology that exists today can pinpoint the location of an aircraft in near real time and in this day and age it is unacceptable that the location of (Flight 370) is unknown. New land-based digital communications as well as satellite surveillance of aircraft during all flight operations must become standard across the industry.” Also, the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization, is convening a special meeting next month to focus on global tracking of airline flights.
These might sound like the final tweaks needed to bring the air traffic control system into the 21st century. But in actuality, aircraft traveling across oceanic and polar regions — where the Air France and the Malaysian flights went missing — have never been visible on radar to air traffic controllers. In fact, only about 10 percent to 15 percent of the world actually uses radar for air traffic surveillance. The rest of the time, cockpit crews communicate on the radio to air traffic controllers, who then use those position reports to keep aircraft separated from each other.
Air traffic control has a way to go before 24/7 coverage around the globe is standard.
Here’s what airline passengers have the right to expect, perhaps demand, from the regulatory bodies that watch over the aviation industry.
First, there’s the issue of the all-important transponders that were either turned off or went dead aboard Flight 370. Without these special radios to help track the aircraft on radar, Flight 370’s whereabouts after its first hour in transit has been mostly speculation. Aircraft must also be equipped with emergency transponders installed in locations that make it impossible for someone to disable once the aircraft is airborne. These units could also be backed up by a battery should the aircraft’s primary electrical power fail or switched off.
With the amount of onboard broadband available in the cabin of most airliners, why not stream everything back to the ground? Full-time streaming would not only devour a considerable amount of an aircraft’s bandwidth, it’s not necessary. If an airplane could transmit a dozen pieces of data — satellite coordinates, airspeed, altitude, heading, and the status of the engines and the environmental system — every five minutes or so, we’d have enough information to easily pinpoint a lost airplane within 40 or 50 miles at a reasonable cost. In fact, a Canadian company, FLYHT Aerospace Solutions, created such a unit years ago. Surprisingly, a FLYHT spokesman said the data delivery system has not been well received because of its $100,000 price tag per aircraft.
Iridium, the company that created the satellite phone system, will begin launching a new generation of satellites in 2015 that will be capable of tracking airplanes anywhere on Earth. Each satellite will arrive in orbit with specialized digital receivers ready to listen for aircraft communications anywhere on the planet.
Airplanes of the future need to ensure that critical aircraft data streams cannot be interrupted once the airplane takes off. The real question is: How serious are the airlines and regulators about fixing these worldwide communication problems?
Even if the FLYHT or the Iridium equipment could have helped more easily locate the Malaysian aircraft, that equipment costs money … and airlines are in business to make money, not spend it on items they see as nothing more than useful options. More importantly, sending data on aircraft back to earth no matter their location has been suggested before. A November 2012 working paper from ICAO, the UN group, addressed improved aircraft tracking and data streaming after the 2009 Air France crash. That working group’s recommendations for some reason, were never acted upon.
Editor Note: I added in this last paragraph after the Tribunes story ran.