After A Tragic Year for Aviation, We Must Resolve to Address the Information Gap

While debris found in the search area now appears to be from QZ8501, bringing us closer to answers on the fate of the aircraft, it is still important to discuss how the aviation industry can improve the manner in which it tracks and gathers the data necessary to investigate aircraft accidents. 

If anything is clear in the months after the disappearance of MH370, it is that the public does not understand how, in an age where we can find our iPhones miles away, an aircraft could go missing without a trace. Nor should the public understand it. It is a situation which defies comprehension. Aviation will not solve this deficiency immediately without strict regulations mandating a change. The challenge for such regulations would be making them universally applicable.

For example, if the USDOT mandated more effective flight tracking technologies, and extended that mandate to apply to any airlines flying into US airspace, that would still leave many airlines around the world which would not be mandated by their local, sovereign, regulatory authority to do the same.

If airlines had to adopt new flight tracking technologies based on regulations on the books by joint authorities, say the USDOT’s FAA, Transport Canada, the UK’s CAA, Europe’s EASA and Australia’s CASA, gaps in coverage would still exist but a considerable number of airlines around the world would have to comply. Even so, because of the financial and logistical strain of retrofitting existing aircraft to comply with such regulation, there would be a time delay.

It is not something we should expect to see implemented in a matter of months. Just as NextGen technologies for management of the airspace have not been implemented overnight, despite their obvious benefits. These are time-consuming programs and the nature of managing change in aviation makes them more so.

There are effective, relatively low-cost tracking technologies which have been in the market for years, and which can be installed quickly, but airlines can justify their not adopting these systems by pointing out that the ATTF is reviewing various technologies and will issue recommendations. Indeed, there are many technological options for airlines to consider which would, to one degree or other, accomplish the goal of knowing where an aircraft is and what has happened to an aircraft we cannot find. The issue is not lack of technology, it is lack of adoption.

I’ve covered developments in flight tracking and emergency flight data transmission on Flight Chic and published several articles in industry press this year. These articles give a timeline of developments so far:

Hawaiian Airlines First to Commit to New Satellite Safety and Aircraft Tracking System, Skift, September 2014

The State of Airline Flight Tracking 6 Months After the Vanishing of MH3701, Skift, September 2014

FLYHT Announces L-3 AFIRS 228S Aviation Recorders Obtain Airbus A320 Certification, July 2014

SITA Enters the Flight Tracking Systems Business, Skift, June 2014

Aviation Industry Pursuing Flight Tracking Options After Malaysia Airlines Incident, Skift, June 2014

The Small Canadian Airline That Already Has the Flight-Tracking System of the Future, Skift, May 2014

Beyond the Black Box: Fixing Aviation’s Broken Communication Systems, Skift, March 2014

UK on Black Box Streaming: Money Drives Delay, The Runway Girl Network, March 2014

The industry will continue to point out that events like this are exceedingly rare and that aviation is one of the safest modes of transport. It is true. These are facts. We can prove them with graphs and charts and give many statistics to back up these claims. But the public will still not be entirely convinced.

In truth, despite the unfortunate loss of AirAsia’s QZ8501, at a time when we’re still reeling from the disappearance of MH370, these two aircraft disappearances happened under very different circumstances.

The weather conditions surrounding QZ8501 might have resulted in a chain of events which led to the loss of the aircraft and which complicated the search and rescue. While it seems debris found is from the missing aircraft, we still have the difficult job ahead of recovering the aircraft’s flight data recorders to piece together what went wrong.

In the case of MH370, we knew there were irregular movements off the aircraft’s flight path. We knew that the communications systems for the aircraft were shut off at some point. We do not know why. We do not know exactly how long MH370 might have flown before it crashed or exactly where it headed. As a result of this lack of information, the search area has thus far proven too large for us to find the wreckage. Advanced flight tracking systems, which could not be manually shut off by pilots, would have more accurately narrowed the search area.

Flight QZ8501 is a different set of circumstances. We know that the last communication from the pilot was a request to ascend to 38,000 ft, to avoid severe weather. To know what happened after this last communication, an automated data transmission from the aircraft’s data recorders at the point of a critical event would be useful. It would now avoid delays searching for black boxes to be recovered from the bottom of the sea.

These two very different events highlight the need for a solution which provides both flight tracking and flight data transmissions. A combined tracking and emergency data transfer would be most useful to cover different the types of aircraft emergencies which could arise, rare as those events might be.

At the end of the day, what the public wants is simple: to know what is going on. The exact technical methods aviation applies to explain emergencies and accidents are irrelevant–even confusing–to many. The public simply wants confidence that, if something does go wrong with an aircraft, the aviation industry can quickly find out what that something was, without waiting months or years for answers. It is a reasonable expectation, and one aviation needs to focus on satisfying. Quickly.

As I have previously written, it doesn’t matter that aircraft accidents are rare, or that missing aircraft are rarer still, or that aviation is the safest form of transport. These facts will not inspire public confidence when the news is dominated by the few cases which do occur. Aviation needs to represent itself as a current, modern technology, in step with the expectations of today’s real-time news world.

The public, above all else, values information. The age of the aviation mystery must end. Airlines will need to consider public perception and inspire confidence, rather than try to convince the public that their perceptions are wrong.

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