Commercial airliners today contain what is known as a “black box,” the flight recorder which stores data from a craft’s instruments and records sound from within the cockpit. These recorders are designed to survive the worst crashes to enable investigators to determine what caused the crash. While the system works fairly well, it has some flaws. First, no matter how robust the design of the recorders, some do not survive, as with three of the four planes hijacked on 9/11 (page 456, note 76). Second, it may be difficult to recover the black box itself following a disaster. This has happened most recently in the case of Air France flight 447.
These difficulties have led Pierre Jeannoit, former chief executive of Air Canada and pioneer in the development of the flight data recorder, to describe the current black box as “obsolete.” Jeannoit is now calling for the replacement of the current system with one that transmits data in real time during the flight. This would allow crash investigations to begin immediately, and would eliminate the need for costly underwater searches like the one now ongoing off the coast of Brazil. Mr. Jeannoit further claims that the satellite capacity exists right now to implement such a system. In fact, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has been calling for such an upgrade for almost ten years. Why then hasn’t it been implemented?
Some have suggested that it is because the union that represents airline pilots is resisting the change, on privacy grounds. It is true that the Air Line Pilots Association, Inc. (ALPA) is resisting video data recorders in the cockpit. However, there are some indications that this opposition extends, not to all real time data transmission, but simply to video. See for instance, the testimony of Captain Duane Woerth, president of ALPA before congress, “More sophisticated FDRs [flight data recorders], perhaps with real-time data downlink capability would seem to be a logical development…”
Whether it is correct, as Mr. Jennoit asserts, that the necessary aircraft downlink capacity exists currently is a highly technical question. However, if we can improve our ability to determine the causes of aircraft tragedy, while reducing the lives placed at risk during an open-ocean search for black boxes, it is a question we should be working diligently on answering.