March 25, 2014
The heart-wrenching and costly search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 continues, even after Malaysian officials announced satellite evidence that the vessel plunged into the Indian Ocean with no survivors. What are the lessons from the tragedy? What can airlines and manufacturers do to prevent another prolonged and painful saga?
Mary Kirby, the founder and editor of the aviation news company Runway Girl Network says the key is connectivity.
“Nothing is ever going to be the same in aviation,” Kirby said in an interview with CBS News. “This is a pivotal moment, a watershed moment in the aviation industry where we are going to understand why it’s so important for connectivity to be core.”
By connectivity, she means the ability for those aboard a plane to send and receive information to the world outside the flight. For passengers, it’s the convenience of, say, logging onto the internet. For pilots, it’s essential cockpit communications. Kirby argues that one of basic steps to preventing another incident like MH370, in which the aircraft’s transponder and communication equipment were disabled, is making sure planes can’t disconnect in the first place.
“We need to not have the ability to simply switch off a transponder, and not know where an aircraft is at,” Kirby said. “If you allow the switch off of the transponder there needs to be an automatic backup.”
That automatic back-up would force the transponder to “click back on” in the event that the system is shut down manually, or in instances such as a fire on board. “Everyone I’ve been talking to in the last two weeks, they say that’s the nearest term, cheapest way of sorting it out.”
The second lesson: “We need to move towards a global, air-traffic control service. Space-based. When I say that, that’s satellite-supported that covers the entire globe including the [North and South] poles.”
This system is coming soon, Kirby says, with a network of satellites beginning to launch next year, with the capability to “see where every aircraft is in the world.” But full rollout, Kirby warns, is still a few years away.
In the shorter term, there are ideas currently being kicked around that involve utilizing the broadband capabilities, or “big connectivity pipes” many airlines are introducing to their fleets for passenger use.
“Those pipes haven’t been approved for what’s called ‘safety services,’ Kirby said.
Even still industry experts are looking at those capabilities, and their cost, and asking questions: “Is there any way we could use this pipe creatively to be able to transmit critical information to the ground, essentially piggyback off of the broadband pipe that is now supporting connectivity to passengers?”
Then there’s the question of streaming black-box data, an idea that gained traction in the wake of Air France 447, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009 and whose black boxes were not recovered for two years.
“The reality is that it’s very costly to stream black box data in real time,” Kirby said. “Now there are some providers that are suggesting that you don’t need to stream in real time. You don’t need to stream in entirety. You could have bursts of data coming from the flight data recorder.”
Each lesson learned from MH370, and each solution proposed, will cost money. But, Kirby argues, when it comes to potentially survivable crashes in remote areas, the ability to locate the plane could mean saving lives.
“That’s what I try to remind people of whenever they bring up this cost issue,” Kirby said. “We’re talking about human lives here.”