The EgyptAir disaster highlights the urgency of implementing changes in black box technology

Struggle to find blackboxes despite years of calls for technology change

Rescue teams searching for wreckage and black boxes of the lost EgyptAir Flight 804 in the Mediterranean Sea are racing against the time due to the same technical limitations pinpointed seven years ago during the search for Air France Flight 447 in the Atlantic Ocean.

Another plane lost in the sea, another struggle to locate the precious flight data recorders before their batteries run out of power in a month's time. According to experts, the EgyptAir disaster, no matter what caused it, highlights how slowly aviation regulators react to knowledge gained during accident investigations, which in turn translates into similar scenarios repeating over and over again.

Not only the case of the Air France Flight 447, which took two years to be found at the bottom of the Atlantic, but also the still missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, showed that current standards of aircraft tracking and position reporting especially in critical situations are not enough to ensure wreckage can be found.

Although cockpit voice recorders and flight data recorders emit an acoustic signal for a 30-day period upon impact, this signal is only detectable from a relatively short distance. The problem is that once the plane is out of reach of ground-based radars, its position can only be estimated – unless the plane is equipped with advanced satellite-tracking systems, which is only mandatory on certain routes.

That leaves the search teams scouring thousands of square kilometres of sea to locate the wreckage – a task which frequently takes longer than the black box's 30 day battery life. Once they go silent, the hunt for them turns into an extremely costly search for a needle in a haystack – as shown by the fruitless, ongoing quest to find the MH370.

However, experts said that the least the industry could do, is to replace batteries in all existing black boxes with newer ones that would last at least 90 days. Technology also already exists that would increase the range of the emitters and make it easier for the searchers to detect the signal.

Such changes have been recommended already in 2009 after the Air France Flight 447 went down in the Atlantic but the practical implementation is only expected to take place in 2018.

"The battery situation is pretty scandalous," said Jean-Paul Troadec, who headed the French government BEA air accident investigative agency during much of the Air France probe.

"It hardly costs anything to install new batteries. There was no reason to wait until 2018."

However, some industry representatives disagree.

"Industry does not develop technology overnight and for the aircraft manufacturers to be ready, two years seems reasonable," said a spokesman for the European Aviation Safety Agency.

For teams that search for the wreckage of the ill-fated Egyptian plane in the deepest parts of the Mediterranean Sea, this means a 30-day deadline. After that, the only chance to find the wreckage would be costly mapping with underwater sonar systems and robots.

Similarly to AF447 and MH370, the EgyptAir Airbus A230 is likely lying at the bottom of the sea at depth of thousands of meters. The only way to detect the black box signals is to rely on towed underwater detectors.

Multiple proposals have been made in the past, including designing black boxes to float on water or transmitting their data in real time via satellites in the case of emergency.

The BAE investigators proposed switching the frequency at which the devices transmit the acoustic signal to a lower one that would be detectable from further away.

European regulator EASA has ordered airlines to fit the longer-range devices from the start of 2019, almost a decade after the crash that first inspired the change.

The slow pace of implementing changes contrasts with the number of high-profile aviation disasters in the past decade, which include the shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet above Ukraine and a co-pilot suicidal crash of a Germanwings flight in France last year.

Despite the high-profile plane crashes, regulators say flying remains exceptionally safe, thanks in part to a unique system of standardised rules overseen by the United Nations.

Critics say reforms have been held up before by bureaucracy and a lack of resources at the United Nations' aviation agency, where a special panel on black boxes did not meet between 1998 and 2006 because it had no secretary.

A spokesman for the United Nations' International Civil Aviation Organization declined further comment beyond a statement in March announcing improvements to flight recorders and better ways of tracking jetliners over remote areas.

According to industry insiders the problem is partly due to the fact that while governments pay for the search operations, it is airlines and aircraft makers who would have to fund the cost of implementing new technology.

However, some airlines, including Air France, have already installed the better black box batteries.

"Airlines are not pushing back. They are as eager as anybody to quickly have access to the black box data after an accident," said a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association, which represents most airlines.

"But we need to be sure that any change is fully thought through ... and capable of being supported by reliable technology."

The cause of the EgyptAir crash has not been clarified yet. Data suggest an explosion on board, either as a result of equipment failure or a terrorist attack, might have been behind the disaster which killed all 66 people aboard.

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