Air France 447, Malaysia Airlines 370 and Developments in Aircraft Tracking and Flight Data Recovery

thumbnail international affairsSix years ago, Air France Flight 447 (AF447) crashed into the Atlantic between Brazil and Senegal, and it took almost 2 years to retrieve the plane’s black box with the flight data. More recently, investigators found no trace of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 (MH370), which disappeared en route to Beijing. These accidents raised questions about why authorities have difficulty locating state-of-the art passenger airplanes and recovering the flight data.

We recently issued a report on developments in aircraft tracking and flight data recovery. Listen to our podcast with Gerald Dillingham, Ph.D., our Physical Infrastructure team’s director for civil aviation issues, and read on to learn about these developments and proposals for improvements.

Aircraft Tracking

Determining the exact location of an aircraft in areas without radar coverage, such as oceanic airspace, can be difficult. For example, over the course of an oceanic flight, air traffic control units receive periodic reports from planes that indicate their position, but disruptions from weather or other conditions may make it difficult to determine the precise location between reports.

To help address aircraft tracking challenges, the airline industry and the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization—which establishes global aviation standards—are working on ways to improve aircraft tracking. Some proposals include

  • systems that would report aircraft position every 15 minutes, and more frequently in abnormal circumstances;
  • tamper-proof tracking systems that would be triggered by unusual changes in the plane’s altitude or speed; and
  • installing surveillance technology on orbital satellites to enable a global aircraft tracking capability.

A better black box?

When a plane is lost, investigators try to recover its flight data and cockpit voice recorders—the “black boxes” shown below. These are about 20 pounds and roughly the size of a shoebox. Investigators analyze information from these recorders to determine the causes of aviation accidents.

figure 1(Excerpted from GAO-15-443)

Although oceanic aviation accidents are rare, AF447 and MH370 highlight the difficulties investigators can face in underwater searches for airplanes’ black boxes.

One low-cost proposal to improve the chances of finding a plane’s black box is to increase the battery life of the underwater locator beacons in black boxes—from 30 to 90 days.

In the longer term, some options could eliminate underwater searches for black boxes:

  • flight recorders that automatically detach from an aircraft’s exterior and float indefinitely, and
  • emergency data transmission, where an in-flight emergency would trigger the aircraft’s black box to stream its data to the ground via satellite.

The figure below depicts a possible future aircraft tracking and flight data recovery approach.

figure 2(Excerpted from GAO-15-443)


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