After more than two days of anxious waiting, searchers finally found bodies and debris from AirAsia Flight 8501 floating in the Java Sea on Tuesday. But the jet itself was still missing, officials could only guess why it crashed, and grieving families were left to suffer through the uncertainty.
Technology has long existed to stream real-time data from airliners’ black boxes. Had it been installed aboard the jet, authorities would now be deciphering clues about what went wrong, and they’d have position data indicating where the jet hit the ocean.
The same is true for the still unexplained disappearance in March of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, presumably over the Indian Ocean.
Had data been available then, authorities might even have been able to trace the jet before it crashed. It is believed to have stayed aloft until it ran out of fuel. Instead, they’re still searching the seabed off the Australian coast for the airliner’s remains.
At the very least, when when Airliner Tragedies occur, real-time data streaming would let safety investigators know whether an aircraft was brought down by an unsuspected design flaw or by pilot error, both of which can be remedied to prevent further crashes and loss of life. If someone deliberately sabotaged a plane — one of the theories about the Malaysia flight — there would be signs of that as well.
But relatively few airliners use the technology that can send out those real-time reports.
One commercially available model costs about $100,000 to install, plus the hourly fees for streaming data via satellite. Many airlines, which operate close to the bone already, don’t want to pay. They even have a reasonable argument: Very few airliners disappear, and constant real-time reporting could be expensive and strain satellite bandwidth.
But weighed against the enormous cost of search operations such as the one for the Malaysian jet, and the awful emotional toll on the families and friends of missing passengers and crew, the cost seems worthwhile. A brand new Airbus A320 such as the AirAsia jet that disappeared Sunday costs $94 million. The cost of a real-time data-streaming box would add about one-tenth of 1% to the sticker price.
Without the technology, finding jets in the ocean can take years, if they’re found at all. When an Air France Airbus 330 crashed into the Atlantic in 2009, it took almost two years for robot submarines to locate the jet and recover the black boxes.
It took even longer to learn that equipment malfunction, compounded by pilot error, brought the jet down. Airbus improved the vulnerable parts, and pilots got a vivid lesson in how to avoid a similar accident.
The disappearance of the Malaysian jetliner just five years later could finally add momentum to correct the problem.
This month, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) unveiled recommendations that would require airliners to automatically report their position every 15 minutes. That’s better than nothing, but at a typical cruising speed of more than 550 miles per hour, an airliner could vanish 140 miles from where it said it was 15 minutes earlier. The recent crashes, with their enormous human toll, argue for full real-time tracing.
The head of IATA called the disappearance of the Malaysian airliner last March “an extremely rare, if not unique, event.” How ironic that nine months later, the AirAsia jet would prove that such incidents aren’t unique at all.
Add Air France, and that’s three events in six years — all the incentive airlines and regulators should need to make real-time reporting a reality.