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.