| WASHINGTON, March 19
WASHINGTON, March 19 The disappearance of a
Malaysian plane has prompted calls for in-flight streaming of
black box data over remote areas, but industry executives say
implementing changes may be complex and costly.
Mark Rosenker, former chairman of the U.S. National
Transportation Safety Board, said this incident and the 2009
loss of an Air France flight in the Atlantic should
spur reforms in what he described an outdated accident
Rosenker, a retired U.S. Air Force general, said finding a
way to transmit limited information from flight data and cockpit
voice recorders to a virtual "cloud" database would help
authorities launch accident investigations sooner and locate a
plane if it got into trouble while out of reach of ground-based
"This is the second accident in five years where we've had
to wait to get the black boxes back," Rosenker said. "We need to
bring the concept of operations for accident investigations and
the technology of what is available up to the 21st century."
Twenty-six nations have been searching for the missing
Boeing Co 777 airliner over an area roughly the size of
Australia for 12 days, but the massive hunt has found no trace
of any wreckage thus far.
Mary Kirby, editor of the aviation industry website Runway
Girl Network, said airlines could use the growing number of
broadband connections that allow passengers to access the
Internet and download movies to provide real-time GPS data for
just such emergencies.
"Airlines realize that this is the cost of doing business,"
she said. "It is inexplicable to be bringing these big fat
connectivity pipes to aircraft and yet to be in a situation in
2014 where you can lose a plane."
COSTLY, CHALLENGING CHANGE
Aviation experts and industry executives say it should be
technically possible to stream flight recorder data to a
database or a virtual "cloud," but warned about broadband
constraints and the high cost of equipping older airliners with
new electronic equipment.
They say new satellite-based air traffic management systems
being implemented in the United States, Asia and Europe in
coming years will make it easier to track airplanes and monitor
aircraft systems in flight, but note it will take a decade or
more before the systems are commonplace worldwide.
Streaming the huge amounts of data now collected by flight
data recorders may also pose technical challenges, while
transmission of cockpit voice recordings could raise privacy
concerns, said analyst Richard Aboulafia with the Teal Group.
Rosenker, the former NTSB chief, said investigators could
agree on a much smaller subset of key data to transmit, which
would save bandwidth and cost. The data could even be sent at
intervals instead of continuously streamed, he said.
Most airplanes already have systems known as Aircraft
Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) that
periodically report, either via VHF radio or satellite, on the
performance of the aircraft and its engines, which could provide
another possibility for getting data to investigators.
One industry executive said he fully expected reforms after
this incident, but said airlines were more likely to increase
the amount of data they were receiving from the existing ACARS
system rather than opting to stream flight data.
"It would just be too costly. There are 93,000 flights a
day, and we've had two incidents like this in four or five
years," said the executive, who was not authorized to speak
publicly since the search for the plane continues.
Bob Benzon, a former Air Force pilot and NTSB investigator,
said it could potentially cost billions of dollars to allow
every plane in the world to stream flight data, but mounting
frustration over the failure to find any trace of Flight MH370
could well galvanize the aviation community into some action.
He said other potentially cheaper proposals included
outfitting planes with floating locator or data recorder beacons
that would automatically deploy if an airplane crashed.
"There's a tombstone mentality at times. You actually have
to have a very tragic event to get things done," Benzon said. "I
predict that this is one of those events unfortunately."
Some U.S. military airplanes, including the Air Force's
massive C-5 cargo planes, already have floating data recorders
since they often fly over large spans of ocean.
The NTSB has recommended mandatory video recordings in the
cockpit of commercial airliners, but has never recommended
live-streaming or regular transmission of flight data.
Discussion about mandating regular transmissions from
airliner black boxes increased after Air France Flight AF447
crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009, its location and black
boxes remaining a mystery until 22 months later.
MOVING BLACK BOX TO "CLOUD"
This time, investigators are beginning to think the plane
may never be found, given the dearth of clues thus far.
Oliver McGee, a professor of mechanical engineering at
Howard University and former senior U.S. Transportation
Department official, said advances in technology made this an
ideal time to change current procedures.
"It's time to move the black box to 'the cloud' at least for
essential limited flight recorder data for long flights over
(areas) like the Indian Ocean, or other remote areas across
large land masses like across the Brazilian Amazon," he said.
Victoria Day, spokeswoman for Airlines for America, which
represents major U.S. carriers, said it was "premature for us to
speculate about potential changes to safety and security
Officials at Delta Air Lines, United and
American Airlines also declined comment on the Malaysia
Airlines case, and any consequences for the industry.
In the past, airlines have argued that such accidents are
too rare to justify the added expense of streaming flight
recorder data, but Rosenker said the cost needed to be weighed
against the cost of the current search.
"Look at what's happening now. We've lost a 777 and over 200
people. Navies and airplanes from around the world are searching
for this plane. That's not cheap either," he said.
(Additional reporting by Victoria Bryan in Frankfurt, Karen
Jacobs in Atlanta and Jon Herskovitz in Austin; Editing by Lisa