Unnecessary Tragedy

12.29.14 12:45 AM ET

Red Tape and Black Boxes: Why We Keep ‘Losing’ Airliners in 2014

The technology exists to keep us from ever losing a commercial airliner over open seas ever again. So why aren’t we using it?

Darkness fell in Asia Monday night with a potential sighting of the wreckage of the AirAsia airliner with 162 people aboard that disappeared Saturday night somewhere between Surabaya, Indonesia, and Singapore.

But Indonesia’s vice president, Jusuf Kalla, swiftly sought to lower expectations, saying there was “insufficient evidence” that the objects, spotted by an Australian aircraft, were from the missing AirAsia plane.

And so once more we are forced to ask the question: How in this century of masterful technology can an airliner hit the water and nobody know where?

We’ve been here before, and too often. There was Air France Flight 447, which fell into the south Atlantic in 2009. And, of course, the greatest mystery in the history of aviation, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared, untracked, into the vast empty of the southern Indian Ocean in March 2014.

Make no mistake: The technology exists—has existed for a long while—to stop this from happening. There could be no greater irony than the fact that when airplanes and helicopters were sent out to search for wreckage from Flight 370, because they were military equipment, they were fitted with what are called deployable recorders. They had flight data recorders, or black boxes, that would be automatically ejected if the airplane hit the water, and an emergency locator transmitter would send out signals giving the exact location.

Simple, right? No commercial airliner has such a system. The military has used these systems since the 1960s. A version was approved for airline use in 2007—but no airline has adopted it. The airline industry objects that sometimes these deployable recorders can pop out without cause, spreading needless alarm. But that probability has been judged extremely rare—and needless alarm is a minor problem compared to not knowing where an airplane has ditched.

However, there is another system that does not involve installing new equipment, although it is a costly and time-consuming process. Every airliner in the sky already has on board monitoring systems that are constantly recording thousands of bytes of information about the performance of the airplane, including its engines.

This information is streamed into the flight data recorders, and packages of it are sent, usually at half-hourly intervals, to satellites and then to ground stations, both to keep track of a flight’s position and to tell airlines what maintenance might be needed when the flight lands.

An expert on these systems recently explained to me that it would be a very simple step to create a new package of crucial data from the flight data recorder and send it at regular intervals—say, every 15 minutes—via satellite to the ground. This idea has been dubbed “the black box in the cloud” because it works in exactly the same way as data from your computer being stored in the cloud.

But one extra trick would instantly solve the problem of crashes that occur over water. The flight management computers include the navigation data programmed for every flight. This is a sophisticated multi-strand calculation. It takes into account the airplane’s weight, the amount of fuel, and weather conditions like head- or tailwinds at the cruise altitudes, matches those with the flight plan, and then determines the course so accurately that when the airliner leaves the gate, its precise arrival time is already known.

It’s a comparatively simple step to incorporate into this system—the ability for the airplane to sense if it is deviating from the set course, either because of some kind of rogue intervention or because of violent weather conditions. (A normal pilot-commanded change, as apparently happened in the case of the AirAsia flight, when the captain requested a climb to 38,000 feet to avoid weather, would not trigger the system.) Using this system, a flow of data from the airplane would automatically be sent to ground stations from the first moment a deviation happens.

Minutes before an airplane hit the water, an alert would go out. And by the time an airplane was in the water, its exact position would be known.

Most of the world’s airliners already have equipment constantly recording this data. All the systems required to receive it—the uplink to the satellite, the downlink to the ground, the distribution of data from ground stations to each airline’s flight control centers—are in place and in constant use. All it needs is one more “pipe” to select and transmit the crucial information.

And this “black box in the cloud” would operate under a principle already used called “priority, precedence and pre-emption,” meaning that an electronic Mayday call would override all other traffic on the satellite and ground links.

The cost? Well, one expert I talked to said that physically it involves little more than a $20 cable. But it’s not that simple. No new system, whatever its simplicity, can be installed in an airliner without it costing $50,000, because of the testing and certification involved. Of course, that initial cost would be amortized over whole fleets of airplanes, so in the end the cost per airplane would be negligible.

Cost is not the problem; bureaucracy is. Ten months after the disappearance of MH370, the two international bodies responsible for airline safety, the International Civil Aviation Organization and the International Air Transport Association, are still waiting for “task forces” to recommend what technology to adopt to solve the problem of finding airplanes that crash into the oceans.

If the past is any guide, there will be more task forces, seminars, conferences, and drawn-out “rule making” before a start is made to do what could be done within months.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to reflect Monday evening’s news from the AirAsia search site in Southeast Asia.