Lost Planes Should Be Yesterday’s Problem

Lost . . .

That word conjures up many images, but in this hyper-connected world, most of us would think that it could not possibly be applicable to something as big as a 250-ton aircraft. Unimaginable as it may be, the world did recently lose such an aircraft, and the effects are painful, far-reaching, and lingering. In such circumstances, family members lack vital information to help them with their tragic loss of loved-ones; the aviation community and the traveling public are beset with uncertainty; and there’s no way that an investigator can conduct a comprehensive accident investigation that may prevent such tragedies from happening again.

The balm of comfort for the grieving, and the spade for unearthing hidden clues to what caused a catastrophic event, may be improved technologies that help us find aircraft and flight recorders that are lost in remote locations or over water. This is the impetus for the NTSB’s recent safety recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration, calling for improvements in locating downed airplanes and ways to obtain critical, tamper-proof flight data faster without depending on immediate underwater retrieval. The Board also re-emphasized the need for cockpit image recorders on commercial aircraft.

Map of theoretical search area for MH370. Source Wikimedia Commons user Soerfm
Map of the search area for Malaysian Air Flight MH370.

As the first anniversary of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 approaches, keeping better tabs on airliners was a key topic this week at the Second High-level Safety Conference that was convened in Montreal by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Senior NTSB staff and I were part of the official US delegation participating at this UN specialized agency gathering of more than 800 strategic decision-makers, and we provided the international civil aviation community with efficient and effective safety recommendations that include global aircraft tracking and wreckage location.

ICAO works with 191 Member States and worldwide aviation organizations to develop the international standards and recommended practices that countries use to formulate their own national civil aviation regulations. Nearly a year after the jet vanished, however, no consensus had yet been developed regarding an effective solution to help prevent painful mysteries like this in the future. In an effort to address this issue, a report on this subject by ICAO and the industry Aircraft Tracking Task Force was on the agenda for discussion.

This week, the High Level Safety Conference recommended the adoption of a new, 15-minute aircraft tracking standard. This would be performance-based – as opposed to requiring a specific technology – in order to allow airlines to comply with the available and developing technologies and procedures that are suitable for their operations. ICAO will coordinate regional exercises after the standard is adopted, which will assist with introducing these technologies into the global airspace, as well as testing responses to abnormal flight behaviors. While this is a significant step forward, more work needs to be done, but the performance-based standard was a key part of our safety recommendations.

Throughout the Conference, I heard from many of my counterparts that the NTSB’s recommendations are timely and well considered. More importantly, our recommendations helped form the international consensus needed for developing this new performance standard.

Having attended the Conference and met with representatives from all parts of the world, it is evident that the tragic disappearance of MH370 remains in the thoughts of all who attended. Every day, nine million passengers travel a network of air routes crossing every country and ocean with over 100,000 planes. Areas of the world with limited tracking capacity, disparities in communications infrastructure, and lack of agreement on various aircraft tracking proposals all call out for timely implementation of the NTSB’s recommendations. In today’s day and age, the word “lost,” pertaining to any ambiguity over the whereabouts of a downed aircraft, should be a reference relegated to the past.

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