As time passes following the Dec. 28 crash of AirAsia flight 8501, it has become even more apparent that the need for real time tracking of the position of a commercial flight and real time transmission of flight data recorder information is necessary.
The issues aren’t new. Airplanes have gone missing since the dawn of aviation. Real impetus began to pick up after the 2009 disappearance of Air France flight 447. This flight went down over the South Atlantic in proximity to major thunderstorms. Radar coverage indicated the flight track but not the final position. ACARS, the system monitoring the health of the aircraft’s systems, transmitted enough information so that the airline, investigators and Airbus had a reasonable picture of what happened but a picture that was incomplete. It took five days to locate the first debris and bodies in the water and two years to locate and retrieve the black boxes, which filled in the picture of a flight crew in complete befuddlement over what was happening to their airplane. The accident was entirely avoidable, and the circumstances incorporated into future training may well save lives.
Despite the delay in finding the airplane and black boxes, the airline industry and regulators did nothing to require real time tracking and data transmission.
Then came Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. The flight, in clear weather, disappeared. The transponder and all radios were shut down. Had it not been for a system attempting a “handshake” with satellites, authorities would have had no idea where to look. The flight is still missing nine months later. Real time tracking and a fool-proof FDR transmitting system would not have prevent what is presumed by most to be a criminal act taking over the airplane, but the aviation industry would have a much clearer picture of what happened from FDR information and it would know where the airplane is.
But, predictably, the industry did nothing again.
Now there is AirAsia 8501. It disappeared in heavy thunderstorms, in an area where radar and radio coverage exists and nine days later authorities still haven’t definitively found the airplane, let alone its black boxes. This hasn’t stopped media and so-called experts, and even an Indonesian government agency, from declaring the cause of the accident and elements of the incident. Supposedly, any of the following happened:
It’s one thing to mention many of these, and other theories, as possibilities to explore (as we have done); it’s quite another to make declarations that this-or-that is what happened.
According to a news report, real time tracking is something AirAsia was already, on its own, beginning to install on its fleet. The airplane in question hadn’t been modified yet. Had it been, the location of the airplane would have been know right away. Had there been a safe water landing, as with US Airways 1549 in New York’s Hudson River years ago, getting to the site rapidly could have meant the difference between life and death. Had there been real time FDR information transmission, all these wild theories wouldn’t be floating out there. That they are is to the great disservice and most likely distress of the families and friends of the victims on the flight.
For the airline industry, installing real time transmission isn’t, on a per-plane basis, all that expensive. Canada’s First Air has locator transmission on its small fleet of Boeing 737s because it serves far north Canada, outside of radar coverage. The equipment is C$110,000 per plane. For an American Airlines or a Delta Air Lines, we’re talking real money with these large fleets.
For the industry, it all comes down to costs and in this context, dead people don’t matter, only cost matters. It’s the infamous tombstone mentality that enough people have to die before there is enough of an outcry to force regulators to do the right thing and force the airlines to follow. First Air and even AirAsia are to be commended to being leaders in real time location transmission.
Far more needs to be done.