Airbus Wants to Replace Black Boxes with Real Time Data

ABC's Christophe Schpoliansky reports from Paris:

European plane manufacturer Airbus wants to see the end of the black boxes on airplanes.

In an interview published in the French daily newspaper Le Parisien today, Airbus CEO Thomas Enders announced that Airbus, along with its partners and suppliers, is working on the possibility of sending the most important flight data in real time via satellites to the airline’s HQs and to no longer solely rely on black boxes which, in some cases, are difficult or impossible to recover or too damaged to be analyzed. “To improve the safety of air transport, we must be sure to recover all the data of a flight” Enders told the newspaper.

How would this work? The aircraft would continuously transmit technical data via VHF if it is less than 125 miles from a reception station or via satellite beyond this distance. The satellite then would relay the technical data to a reception station on the ground. And this station would pass on all the information via phone lines or satellite to the airline company’s reception center.

This comes after the crash of the Air France A330 off the coast of Brazil on June 1st which killed 228 people. The cause of the crash is still unknown and the search for the black boxes have remained unsuccessful despite the mobilization of important means. This search for the black boxes is due to resume in the Fall, with the participation of several countries, including the US. Cost of this new search phase is already estimated at several tens of millions of dollars.

Transmitting data from an airplane is nothing new. An aircraft is already transmitting using VHF or satellites certain technical data to its airline on the ground. Coded messages called ACARS (for Aircraft Communication Adressing and Reporting System) are sent continuously and at more or less regular intervals of about 10 minutes to the maintenance centers of every airline company worldwide. Listed in these messages are, among other things, the aircraft’s flight path, the speed and position of the aircraft, but also alarms which alert maintenance personnel on the ground of issues with the aircraft that would need to be looked at when the aircraft lands at its destination. In all, about a hundred flight parameters are concerned by this system, some of these parameters being also recorded by the Black Boxes. In the case of the Air France crash, 24 ACARS were sent automatically to the airline’s maintenance center outside Paris. These messages, among other things, showed inconsistencies in speed measurements on the aircraft just before all contact was lost. Implementing such a system will not be easy. And many questions remain unanswered at this time: how many satellites will be necessary to cover the thousands of aircrafts flying over our heads on a daily basis? Where all the data be stored? What will the cost of all this be?

Paul-Louis Arslanian, the head of the French BEA (Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses, the equivalent of the NTSB in the US), reminded on Monday that experts around the world have been looking for quite a while at the way to replace the black boxes. He also said that France had once more submitted this matter to the International Civil Aviation Organization and that a meeting of the Organization on airline safety is already scheduled for next year.

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