The aviation industry needs to find ways to make black box data easily retrievable

EgyptAir crash speeds up decision on black box data retrieval

The disaster of EgyptAir Flight 804 will force the aviation industry to make decisions more quickly about how to enable black box data retrieval without the need for expensive underwater searches.

According to the International Air Transport Association (Iata), the trade association representing most of the world’s airlines, a decision on a method to be used to make black box data immediately accessible to investigators in the case of an accident should be made within the next six months.

"By the end of this year we should have a concrete and definite position on this issue,” Gilberto Lopez-Meyer, Iata's senior vice-president for safety and flight operations, said at the Iata annual general meeting in Dublin.

"We are a strong participant in the discussion with ICAO [the International Civil Aviation Organisation]. We expect to have a position on this by the end of this year."

ICAO expects all new aircraft entering service after January 2021 to be equipped with technology enabling quick recovery of black box data. However, there are multiple approaches currently to how this could be achieved.

One option, advocated by aircraft maker Airbus, is to fit aircraft with systems that would eject the two black boxes - the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder - automatically when aircraft systems detect extreme problems. Alternatively, the data could be streamed in real time.

"If we have a deployable recorder it will be much easier to find," said Charles Champion, Airbus executive vice-president for engineering.

"We have been working on that and this only reinforces our overall approach."

The ejected black boxes would be able to float on water, which would make it easier for rescue teams to locate them. Currently, in the event of a crash on water, the devices sink with the wreckage. It may be extremely difficult for rescue teams to locate them if the plane sinks in deep parts of the world’s oceans. The problem was highlighted in 2009 after the crash of Air France Flight 447 in the Atlantic. Rescue teams didn’t manage to locate the black boxes within the 30 day period for which the devices emit an acoustic signal. It took another two years of extreme efforts at high cost for the wreckage to be found and the black boxes recovered.

The Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, lost in 2014, has not been found yet and rescue teams searching for the EgyptAir Flight 804 are struggling with the very same problem, although it has been reported that the searchers detected the black box signal earlier this week.

Ejectable black boxes are already being used in military planes. However, some experts, including those representing American plane-maker Boeing, have expressed concerns about the safety of the technology. Instances have been reported in the past of the black boxes being dropped from the tail of the plane accidentally.

Airbus said last year it was talking to regulators about adding deployable devices to its two largest models of jets.

Despite the number of high-profile air crashes in recent years, aviation remains extremely safe. According to latest Iata figures, there has been only one accident per 3.1 million flights over the past year, although the accident rate has increased to 0.32 per million flights in 2015 from 0.27 a year earlier.

"Aviation is safe,” Lopez-Meyer commented. “The industry has become so reliable in its safety record that relatively small variations in performance from year to year can affect the overall performance.”

The EgyptAir Flight 804 crashed on 19 May into the deepest parts of the Mediterranean sea en route from Paris to Cairo. All 66 people aboard were killed. The wreckage is believed to be resting on the seabed at depths of up to 3,000m.

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