UK on black box streaming: money drives delay


As the world grapples with the loss of contact with Malaysia Airlines MH370, Runway Girl Network believes it’s important to shine the spotlight on the antiquated method for data communications exchange in our industry; particularly the industry’s failure to adopt modern connectivity equipment on board to stream black box data.

Indeed, after the tragic loss of AF447 over the Atlantic, this absolute lack of information – with the possibility of waiting months, perhaps years until a black box is recovered to find out what happened to MH370 – is incomprehensible.

We reached out to UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) spokesman Richard Taylor to ask what he perceives as the technical challenges to implementing new systems. He did not hesitate to answer, “none”.

As he explains, AF447 raised awareness of a deficiency in our information management systems. The regulatory authorities would welcome industry action to correct this deficiency. Proposals, Taylor insists, “would gain approval”. He indicates that the regulatory authorities would embrace new technologies to address this critical need. Progress is dependent on the willingness of airlines to demand it and OEMs to provide it, he explains.

Boeing’s game-changing fly-by-wire system – introduced on the 777-200 – was revolutionary in the 1990s, but we are no longer in the 90s. Taylor merely highlights this fact in the context of the disappearance of MH370, a 777-200. He says Airbus and Boeing should be encouraged to take action and modernize the technology  on board their aircraft. The only rationale for delay is economic, but the regulatory authorities do not make those decisions, nor can they control the costs.

Boeing has said that its 737 MAX will be truly e-enabled, though we’re waiting to learn just exactly what this will entail. Its statements about connectivity’s role in this aircraft have been broad. “We are actively positioning and provisioning our airplanes to accept all known connectivity technologies,” the airframer said in a prior interview.

Taylor suggests that airlines must be willing to pay for modernized aircraft, and that they must put pressure on the OEMs to update equipment.

As he points out, improvements to systems, such as those identified last night while the situation with MH370 unravelled, “would require no major modifications”. There would be no complex certification issues to confront. There would be no significant implementation delays.

Indeed, Inmarsat told Runway Girl Network editor Mary Kirby in 2010 that if an airline has SwiftBroadband on its aircraft, “and you want to stream black box data to the ground, for example, you may want that application to have dedicated bandwidth”. SwiftBroadband is already poised to support safety services. However, other connectivity options are also available, and we’ll look at their potential role in data streaming and cockpit comms in the coming weeks.

Asked whether there are any special industry working groups looking into exploiting black box streaming for the commercial market, Taylor pointed out that such groups would need to be initiated by the parties involved in the decision to proceed, namely the OEMs and airlines. The dependence of regulatory action on a direct correlation between a particular standard and a proven safety advantage is also at issue.

Streaming flight data has significant advantages in rescue and recovery, as well as corrective action because of the immediate availability of information which would assist in a prompt determination of failure modes when accidents occur. They would avoid delays, confusion, and suffering for the families impacted by such tragedies. They would significantly expedite accident investigations, reducing the dependency on limited data and voice recordings. This is why the regulatory authorities would support these efforts and approve them.

However, as Taylor points out, such technology could not prevent these tragedies from happening. The advantage is not immediately correlated to accident prevention; though immediate access to critical data might help to identify technical troubles more quickly, prompting changes to key components, processes and regulations.

As part of our preparation of this story, we reached out to Boeing directly for guidance and answers. Though Boeing took our call, the spokesperson would only repeat the prepared statement to the press, and would not put us in touch with any technical personnel who might shed light on the challenges Boeing might face to implement this technology.

We also attempted to reach Airbus, but did not hear back. The FAA indicated that they would call back, but has yet to do so.  EASA and ICAO could not be reached, neither could the NTSB. At issue here is journalists’ ability to gather facts during rare but devastating events, avoiding confusion, misinformation and anguish.

The larger question, perhaps, is less about whether modernization of data management and the live streaming of flight data would prevent the downing of an aircraft, but whether our industry is committed to modernization. Birds were once dinosaurs, but they evolved and therefore thrive.


  1. Mark

    My question is, how safe is safe enough? Airline flying is safer than almost anything else that you do in your life. You are arguably safer on an airliner than you are in your own home. You are certainly many hundreds of time safer on an airliner than you are in a car. Yet, there are no calls for real time data streaming from your bathroom or car to “enhance safety”. Airlines provide a service that is so incredibly safe that more money towards more safety only serves to assuage people’s irrational fear of flight, particularly when they are much, much more likely to be killed on the way to the airport.

    • Mary Kirby

      There is an argument to be made about using real-time data to enhance safety (though, as you’ll see in the comments above, some pilots have concerns about pushing data/instructions up versus just pulling data off of aircraft). Consider this – what if MH370 was a survivable water landing and the ending is decided by whether or not rescuers know where the plane is at. In 2014, the excuses for not streaming essential data have grown incredibly thin. As the CAA points out in our latest piece, Airbus and Boeing should be encouraged to take action and modernize the technology on board their aircraft. The only rationale for delay is economic.

      • Mark

        The argument against it is not thin, it is a waste of money. How safe do you need to be? That’s the real question. That money would be MUCH better spent elsewhere. For example, how about taking that same amount of money and putting it towards cancer research? That would save many more lives. The only reason that this is being discussed is because 230 people all died at once. That sensationalist news, meanwhile about 3300 people died in cars the same DAY that this plane crashed. New regulations on a barely profitable business like airlines isn’t needed. By the way, I’m an airline captain.

  2. Given the amount of data collected by Flight Data Recorders and Cockpit Voice Recorders plus the obscenely high rates charged for data transfer via satellite, I think you may be scaring people with a request to stream “Black Box Data” over the satellite. We’re just not ready for that without a major economic reason and/or massive reductions in data costs.

    However, if you were to ask the airframers & airlines why they are not streaming a very simple, basic *velocity vector* every 10 seconds or so whenever an airliner is flying (or at least from 5-10 minutes after take off) then it’s not such a confronting question.

    Both AF447 and MH370 would have been easier to locate if their info was streamed. We have something close to this from FlightRadar24 which was using ADSB data (for MH370) but it doesn’t seem to have been sufficient.

    You can get battery powered portable units from Spot and portable “cigarette lighter” units from SpiderTracks for light aircraft so something similar for an airliner would be pretty easy to do (provided the satellites can see it & process the bandwidth, etc).

    Having a unit with a battery backup would also ensure data could be transmitted following an in-flight break-up (although not if the unit was destroyed in an explosion).

    All such information would meet the needs of the “How can we not know where it is” question without having to stream huge amounts of data. It also bypasses all the privacy and concern issues that come up from tech-crew & airlines if all the other information is going to be streamed.

    So, ask the right question: “Why don’t airliners all have Spidertracks or SPOT systems?”

    You might get a better answer rather than stonewalling or quick, standard responses from rather busy media liaisons 🙂 🙂

  3. Jean Pardee

    Sorry Mary, But I agree with both Mark and Grant, the money for the full real time streamign of information that you are suggesting would be better spent elsewhere. I do especially agree with Grant that there should be a high accuracy method of real time location (including altitude) streaming. This would also address the concern of quick responce and I feel is far more important thatn quickly finding out why something occurred.

    By the way, Airbus introduced fly by wire on commercial airlinerw with the A320 (1984 or so, dependingon if you are counting launch, first flight or entry into service). They followed this up with the fly by wire A330 (launched in June, 1987, first flight in November, 1992 and entry into service in January 1994) as opposed to the Boeing 777 (launced in October 1990, first flight in June of 1994 and entry into service in June 1995), which was hardly a game changer, except perhaps for Boeing istself.

  4. Jim Anderson

    I have to agree as well. I think this is an ill timed article that allows some not in the know to think there’s something wrong or disingenuous on the part of the airplane manufacturers. The theory behind this and wonderful and is worth some thought. The idea that Boeing, Airbus, Bombardier or Embraer have consciously decided to not do it due to $$ is flat wrong. There is so much technology that would need to be created, tested and implemented in order to pull this off. Just do the math on bandwidth alone. Flightaware is tracking 8000+ flights aloft right now. I’m sorry, IMHO, this was just a lot of sensationalism due to a tragedy.

  5. Anthony Mohr

    I have to disagree with you Jean Pardee. You say that you agree with mark and Grant that the money for full time streaming info would be better spend somewhere else. Well let me use a hockey example of just such thinking.

    Back in Nov 21, 2005 Jiri Fischer a player for the Detroit Red Wings collapse and was literally dead till he was brought back to life with a defibrillator and doctors at the team’s bench. The NHL teams were not required to have a defibrillator or have a doctor anywhere near the benches. After that incident NHL teams were required to have a defibrillator and a doctor near the teams benches.

    Is this an expense NHL teams wanted to fork over? Of course not, after all what are the chances of that happening again?

    Well flash forward to yesterday and the unthinkable happened again. Rich Peverely of the Dallas Star collapse at his team bench and guess what was in hand right by the bench? A defibrillator and a doctor. Because of the events of what happened a little over 8 years ago this guy got to live.
    AF447 should have been the Jiri Fischer of the Aviation Industry. Instead here we are repeating the same old words- it’s “too expensive” and “it’s not worth it because aviation is so safe”.

    MH370 could have been the Stars’ Peverley of Aviation, instead here we are again wondering where in the seas or maybe land this plane is at. That is inexcusable in this day in age.

    If we are too cheap to send live streaming info from a plane to a ground base, look at it this way, I can go backpacking or mountaineering and if I was to get critically hurt I can pull out my $99 SPOT and send SAR my exact coordinates. Meanwhile here we are trying to guess where the plane is so we can detect the plane’s black box ping instead of having the box telling us where it is.

    Time to get with the times and stop making excuses.

    • For what it’s worth, I agree that we should be doing something and not making excuses, however, I would see that a basic system such as a SPOT or Spidertracks equivalent that cannot be tampered with by pax/crew is the equivalent of having the doctor with defib unit standing by at the game. The comparatively small cost vs the benefits at any time (not just a “lost airliner” situation) makes it a no brainer that has me wondering why it’s not already being done.

      Transmitting full CVR & FDR (aka “Black Box”) data via satellite is, at this stage of the in-flight connectivity game, the equivalent of having a full emergency ward of equipment & staff on site for every game. Currently, it’s overkill.

      Of course, once bandwidth availability & pricing and unit pricing comes down to super cheap then yup, stream it all. Until then, just help find out where the aircraft is so it’s easier to get to the “black box” units in the case of a disaster.

  6. Peter Morris

    This black box streaming proposal is for post event recovery rather than safety purposes?
    In terms of cost effectiveness I think Grant, Mark and Jean have it spot on with the idea of a simple and ‘non tamperable’ device. Do something quick and effective for basic location info at reasonable cost (installation plus running).. It will also more easily sidestep endless waves (years?) of international CAA and crew negotiations as to how, when etc, etc.
    Could look on it as an auxiliary back up for ADS-B.

    • Thanks Peter. I’m not sure that I’d want to use this as a backup for ADS-B (location/direction info to help aircraft separate, inform ATC, etc) but certainly it’d work as a backup for any hassles that happen outside radar/ADS-B coverage.

  7. MC Glass

    I want to thank you Mary for putting the question out there. From all responses offered there seems to be existing simple signal technology available, which was the point of your article/question. Now, on to delivering the necessary legislation and implementation.

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