U.S., Europe Differ on Real-Time Aircraft-Tracking Rules

Airbus to Put New Type of Floating ‘Black Boxes’ on Future Models
cvrU.S., European and international air-safety authorities appear to be heading in different directions when it comes to requiring real-time tracking of airliners or mandating installation of video recorders in their cockpits.

The splits, which emerged during a public forum Tuesday by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, suggest that global agreement on standards and regulations affecting such key safety enhancements is likely to be difficult-and most likely will take years.

The Federal Aviation Administration, for example, isn’t currently drafting rules that would mandate enhanced tracking of planes or putting video devices inside cockpits to help investigators reconstruct the actions of pilots following a dangerous incident or accident.

Peggy Gilligan, the FAA’s top safety official, indicated these and some other long-discussed changes would be hard to justify under current federal cost-benefit trade-offs. She added that the agency already is working on dozens of other, higher-priority safety rules that offer more readily quantifiable benefits. It isn’t clear, she added, “when and if” the agency can fit real-time tracking requirements into its agenda.

A top European Aviation Safety Agency official, by contrast, said his agency is months away from proposing rules that would call for practically universal, real-time tracking of aircraft. European lawmakers could take action on the rules as soon as early next year.

And a senior safety investigator for the International Civil Aviation Organization, an arm of the United Nations, told the hearing that ICAO is committed to eventually issuing recommendations for cockpit video recorders even though the process could take years.
Efforts to ensure the position of all airliners can be tracked minute-by-minute virtually everywhere around the globe-even over oceans or polar regions not covered by ground-based radar-emerged in the spotlight after the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines 3786.KU -1.96% Flight 370 earlier this year. The presumed crash in March of the Boeing Co. BA -1.78% 777-which still hasn’t been located–also sparked widespread discussion of how to simultaneously transmit or “stream” certain aircraft-operating data to the ground if pilots lose control of a plane, major systems fail or some other emergency occurs.

Before regulators move, though, ICAO and the International Air Transport Association, the main global airline trade group, are working to come up with voluntary recommendations for global tracking. They are expected to focus on technical standards instead of company-specific technologies.

Tuesday’s session was partly intended to influence what has turned into an industrywide debate on those topics, and partly to get companies on the record about initiatives they are pursuing to deal with the fallout from Flight 370.

“There is a future in which we [will] know the fate of every accident flight,” Christopher Hart, the acting NTSB chairman, said as he opened the forum.

At the same time, Tuesday’s session also disclosed that plane manufacturers, cockpit-equipment makers and satellite-service providers already seem to have developed a preliminary consensus and are gradually moving, on their own, to implement early steps to transmit position, speed, altitude and other data to the ground in case an airliner suffers a catastrophic failure or goes down for any reason.

In addition, Airbus Group NV disclosed new efforts designed to make it easier to locate data and voice recorders, typically referred to as “black boxes,” in the event of a crash. Pascal Andrei, a senior Airbus official, told the NTSB the European plane maker plans to install deployable black boxes on future A350 and A380 aircraft, intended to eject from the plane in the event of a crash.

In case the aircraft goes down in water, the recorders are designed to float. Mr. Andrei said “we are quite confident” in the technology and those two plane models are slated to have it installed during assembly. In response to questions about how quickly that might happen, he said “very soon after some more studies and assessments” are completed.

The Airbus official also said that in the future, all Airbus models will be able to trigger transmission of essential operating data to the ground in case of an emergency or “when we have some suspicious event on board.” Such information about aircraft-pilot interactions would be in addition to position, speed, altitude and heading data.

In light of the way communications and computer systems on Airbus planes are configured, Mr. Andrei said the changes would entail “just a software modification.”

Boeing and avionics supplier Honeywell International Inc., HON -1.84% which also had officials giving presentations Tuesday, expressed skepticism about deployable recorders, which no longer would be located deep inside aircraft. Chris Benich, a senior Honeywell official, worried about “adding complexity to the airplane,” as well as maintenance and reliability issues.

Mark Smith, the executive representing Boeing, said the Chicago plane maker has placed deployable recorders on various aircraft it builds for the military but has no current plans for putting them on commercial jetliners. Over the years, according to Mr. Smith, the devices have provided usable data only in about three-quarters of crashes, either because they couldn’t be located or were damaged in the other instances. “We think they need study” before widespread adoption, Mr. Smith said, noting the dangers of unintended or accidental deployment.

DRS Technologies Inc., a prominent maker of deployable recorders, encourages their use to supplement traditional black boxes. Blake van den Heuvel, a DRS official, told the session that his company has put its technology on a total of 4,000 planes and helicopters. Over some 60 million flight hours, the recorders have worked as designed in every case except on jet fighters, he said.

Reflecting the sentiments of many airlines and suppliers, Mr. Smith said Boeing favors more-effective use of technology and capabilities aircraft already have, rather than mandates for new hardware. With some 69,000 airline flights daily world-wide, he stressed the dangers of “unintended consequences” from embracing new devices or procedures.

Steve Kong, business and development manager for Inmarsat ISAT.LN -0.22% PLC, a London-based satellite operator, said the company already has offered to provide every-15-minute location updates free of charge to airlines with compatible systems. Some airlines can pay to get updates as often as every minute or less.

Meanwhile, both Boeing and Inmarsat are working on enhanced systems intended to transmit more extensive data to the ground as often as every 10 seconds if there is an emergency.

Regardless of how regulations evolve, the panelists agreed that none of the projected satellite-transmission solutions are likely to entirely replace actual recorders.

Space-based technology “can get important data off the aircraft, reliably, even as it is going down,” said Richard Hayden, an executive with FLYHT Aerospace Solutions Ltd. , a Canadian provider of real-time data from aircraft systems. But even he said such alternatives won’t make black box hardware unnecessary.

Source: http://online.wsj.com/articles/u-s-europe-differ-on-real-time-aircraft-tracking-rules-1412709436