Black boxes, air safety and the need to know what happened to MH370

The disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines plane is a lesson in the limits of technology — and the public’s patience

Indonesian navy pilots search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 over the South China Sea, March 10, 2014.

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 departed from Kuala Lumpur’s International Airport shortly after midnight on March 8 carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew members. It disappeared about 50 minutes later. Beyond that, there’s little investigators know about the flight, what caused its disappearance or even where the plane may have ended up.

Experts say the mystery surrounding Flight MH370 shows the limits of modern aviation technology — and perhaps even more, it highlights the public’s unrealistic expectations about what can immediately be known about airplane incidents in an age when most information is just a few clicks away.

First, what officials do know: The Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777-220ER left the airport with no signs of distress and stopped transmitting data somewhere over the South China Sea, possibly south of Vietnam’s Ca Mau peninsula. The flight was reportedly at a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, and the weather was clear. No abnormal calls were made by the first captain, who had 18,000 hours of flying experience under his belt.

Mostly everything else remains unclear. As Malaysia’s civil aviation chief, Azharuddin Abdul Rahman said after the crash, “There are many theories that have been said in the media. Many experts around the world have contributed their expertise and knowledge about what could happen, what happened ... We are puzzled as well.”

But some say aviation disasters don’t have to be so mysterious.   

Flight data are stored in black boxes (they’re most often actually orange), which go down with the plane in the event of a crash — one of the main problems with relying on the technology.

Calls for a change to industry reliance on black boxes became especially strong after an Air France flight between Paris and Brazil crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009. It took investigators two years to find the data recorder.

Several institutions, including the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, have spent millions of dollars to develop technology to supplement or replace black boxes. Some have called for a satellite system that would relay information in real time from planes to the ground.  

But many experts say these systems would be impractical or simply not worth the cost. They point out that in disaster investigations, the Air France flight was the exception, not the rule.

“If you look at the history of accidents — even in very difficult cases, the flight data recorder was ultimately recovered — so the case for safety isn’t really there,” said R. John Hansman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT.  

study by L-3 Aviation Recorders found that a major U.S. airline would have to spend $300 million a year for real-time recording. Many say its advantages aren't worth that cost, considering how rare airline accidents are.

“Everything is a cost-benefit analysis,” said George Bibel, a professor of physical engineering at the University of North Dakota. “But so far, investigators have never failed to find a black box.”

Krishna Kavi, director of the Net-Centric Software and Systems Center at the University of North Texas believes that with the right government initiative, satellite information systems would eventually become affordable and practical for use on airlines.

"Until FAA and sister agencies in other countries mandate steaming of data, commercial airlines will not implement them," he wrote in an email to Al Jazeera. "Remember how opposed automotive industry was to air bags and even seat belts?"

But Bibel, Hansman and others believe the public’s thirst for data immediately after crashes and disappearances and the dozens of theories that spring up around those incidents say more about human nature than about aviation safety.

“In every instance like this, for the few days when you don’t have data, people come up and say, ‘We should have real-time data downstreaming,’” Hansman said. “The only advantage is you’d find the data maybe a few days earlier. Is that worth hundreds of millions of dollars?”

The mysterious circumstances surrounding Flight MH370 make it easy for the public to jump to conclusions. In the two days since the disappearance, people have posed theories ranging from pilot error to mechanical failure to hijacking to terrorist attack. But experts warn that the best thing to do in situations like this, no matter how hard it might be, is just to wait until concrete data emerge before drawing conclusions.

“Until then, it’s just a bunch of talking heads, and I’m one of them,” Bibel said. “It’s pure speculation.”

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