Washington - Clinging to wreckage in the Indian Ocean, Bahia Bakari could hear the cries of other aircraft crash survivors in the darkened waters around her.
As the night wore on and no rescuers arrived, the voices gradually silenced until there were none, she said afterwards, according to France’s Bureau of Investigations and Analysis. It wasn’t until hours later in daylight that a boat from the Comoros Islands picked up the 14-year-old, the lone survivor of 153 people on a Yemenia Airways flight that plunged into the sea in 2009.
Cases like the Yemenia crash and Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, missing since March 8 in the longest disappearance in modern passenger airline history, are spurring calls by global safety groups for better technology to help rescuers and investigators find aircraft in remote areas.
“They would have got to those people within probably half an hour and many would have been rescued” if the plane had systems pinpointing where it went down, said Blake van den Heuvel, a director of business development at DRS Technologies, which makes crash-proof locator devices.
The obstacles to better and mandatory flight tracking are less about technology than whether improvements are worth the cost, since so few aircraft disappear, and about whether to upset a decades-old philosophy that pilots should be able to shut down electronic components in emergencies.
“It is absolutely unacceptable in this day and age to not know where an aircraft is,” Dave Barger, chief executive officer of JetBlue, said on April 3 in an interview on Bloomberg Television.
The quest for solutions involves global regulators, airlines and aerospace manufacturers. Depending on the enhancements ordered, from real-time satellite monitoring to black boxes that would float after a water impact, the cost of improvements could be more than R10.5-billion, far exceeding the costs of the Malaysia Air search so far.
Most airliners are equipped with emergency locator beacons that don’t work under water, and data recorders whose battery-powered homing signals lasts only about 30 days.
After Air France Flight 447 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on June 1, 2009, killing all 228 aboard, it took almost two years to find the wreckage.
The lag prompted the French BEA, as the accident investigator is known, to urge the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to study aircraft-tracking improvements.
The BEA identified two areas with the most potential: requiring airliners to regularly transmit location, even over polar and ocean regions, and adding a flight recorder that would jettison from an aircraft and float after a crash in water.
Another solution would be to send a constant stream of data to ground stations on the aircraft’s path and performance, Chris McLaughlin, a spokesman for London-based satellite provider Inmarsat, said. That data would replicate part of the function of the black box recorders, he said.
Many aircraft have satellite communication capability and would need only a software upgrade to report position. Still, airlines would have to pay for added data transmissions, just as mobile phone customers pay for texts and data downloads.
The costs of those transmissions would vary widely, depending on what satellite packages they buy.
Also, the system most airlines use sends data at speeds of 1990s modems, McLaughlin said. That’s far too slow for real-time data streams.
Boeing and Inmarsat are working together to develop a high-speed data network to be available within a few years, McLaughlin said.
Because of the cost and transmission limitations, an ICAO group studying the issue is developing standards for a compromise system. It would send a burst of data to satellites if an aircraft’s systems detected an emergency, said James Cash, the former chief technical adviser for recorders at the US National Transportation Safety Board.
Most airliners flying international routes are equipped to report their positions every minute or two, said Cash, who worked with the ICAO group until his retirement last month. At least two carriers, Air France and cargo-carrier FedEx, have begun tracking their planes that way, he said.
Like other types of cockpit communications, such data reporting wouldn’t help track an aircraft if pilots purposely disabled it, he said.
The data-communications system transmitting a jet’s location, known by the acro-nym Acars, didn’t function on the missing Boeing 777.
Pilots are used to having their every move followed by data-hungry airlines and wouldn’t mind some forms of real-time monitoring, said Sean Cassidy, a pilot and safety chief of the Air Line Pilots Association (Alpa).
They would object if conversations from the cockpit were transmitted over airwaves, or carriers used data to punish flight crews, Cassidy said. Alpa is the largest pilot union in North America.
Pilots also want to retain the ability to switch off Acars and transponders used to identify a plane to controllers, he said. The only way to halt an electrical fire may be to cut power to malfunctioning equipment, he said.
The Malaysian jetliner, carrying 239 people to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur, vanished after Acars and the transponder system were shut off. The way the plane then turned off course toward Malaysia and out over the ocean has convinced investigators someone sought to cloak its path, according to Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Investigators have estimated Flight 370’s likely final location by analysing hourly pings between the plane and an Inmarsat satellite above the equator. That imprecise method has forced searchers to spread out over 217 000 square kilometres (83 784 square miles) of open water.
Air and sea patrols by Australia, Malaysia, China, the US, South Korea, New Zealand and Japan haven’t found any trace of the plane. A Chinese ship picked up two signals in recent days, one at the frequency used by black boxes, while a third sound was picked up elsewhere by an Australian vessel.
The Flight Safety Foundation, a non-profit group, and the International Air Transport Association, a Montreal-based industry group, last week endorsed some form of flight monitoring or emergency beacons. They’re working together to develop proposals by the end of the year, Ken Hylander, acting president and CEO of the foundation, said in an interview.
The plane-tracking system that received the highest total score for practicality and cost in the BEA’s analysis was a combination black-box recorder and emergency-locator beacon that would break away from a plane during a crash.
Some Australian aircraft combing the Indian Ocean for the Malaysian 777 are equipped with these recorders, DRS’s Van den Heuvel said.
Adding floating black boxes to existing jets could cost several hundred thousand dollars per aircraft, he said.
Regardless of technology, a multimillion-dollar aircraft carrying 239 people vanishing demands a response, said Hylander, of the Flight Safety Foundation.
“We really, as an industry, have to do better,” he said. – Washington Post-Bloomberg