Karamjit Kaur, Aviation Correspondent

Fast action needed to ensure air safety

Crew members in a fast response craft from the Australian vessel Ocean Shield being lowered onto the water to search for debris from Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean on Monday. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Crew members in a fast response craft from the Australian vessel Ocean Shield being lowered onto the water to search for debris from Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean on Monday. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

IN JUNE 2009, when Air France Flight AF447 plunged into the Atlantic Ocean, it left no survivors and exposed serious gaps in the way commercial planes are tracked and pilots trained.

At the end of its official probe, the French BEA, the Bureau of Inquiry and Analysis for Civil Aviation, made 41 technical and other recommendations.

If the global aviation community acted urgently on some of these, it might have made the ongoing search for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 less agonising.

More than a month after MH370 vanished en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8, the Boeing 777-200ER aircraft is presumed to have crashed into the Indian Ocean, about 2,000km north-west of Perth, Australia. There is little hope that any of the 239 crew and passengers who were on the flight survived.

A multinational hunt has yet to confirm the exact spot where the plane went down or uncover debris.

Air France Flight AF447, an Airbus A330-203, was flying from Rio de Janeiro to Paris when it crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on June 1, 2009, killing all 228 people on board.

Official investigations concluded that the aircraft crashed after pilots failed to react correctly to temporary inconsistencies between air speed measurements.

This was likely due to ice crystals blocking the plane's pitot tubes, which measure air speed. It took five days for the Brazilian Air Force to locate bodies and debris from the missing aircraft.

But the flight data and cockpit voice recorders were recovered only close to two years later.

The black boxes, as they are referred to, record conversations in the cockpit and preserve data on the position and speed of the aircraft. This can be crucial in determining the cause of aircraft accidents.

The boxes are fitted with underwater locator beacons that can transmit for 30 days to guide search and rescue teams hunting for aircraft wreckage.

If the battery dies before the plane is found, as was the case with AF447, looking for the wreckage becomes a lot more difficult.

Recognising this, the French BEA recommended that the lifespan of underwater locator beacons be extended to 90 days. It also suggested that aircraft be fitted with deployable flight recorders that can float.

In a serious accident, these recorders are automatically ejected from the aircraft and float instead of sink like existing recorders.

Such recorders are already installed in some military planes.

The lack of constant and reliable flight data streaming was also raised in the Air France accident report.

The BEA recommended that the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) - a United Nations arm that regulates civil aviation - study the possibility of making it mandatory for commercial aircraft to regularly transmit basic flight parameters such as position, altitude and speed.

On search and rescue efforts, the BEA pointed out the need for countries to have clear systems and protocols as well as well-trained personnel to launch search efforts. There is also a need for better coordination when several countries are involved.

In the search for AF447, poor coordination between Brazil and neighbouring Senegal caused "considerable delay" in the start of operations, the BEA said.

AF447's search and recovery effort over two years cost an estimated ¤115 million (S$198 million). In such accidents, countries and companies participating typically bear their own costs.

In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration has reportedly ordered that all underwater locator beacons made after March next year must be able to transmit for 90 days. All 30-day devices must be replaced by 2020.

The ICAO recently adopted the recommendation, which will come into force in 2018.

The global body has also issued new standards, effective the same year, for underwater locator beacons to be attached to the aircraft body to help locate ocean wreckage.

The changes come too late for MH370. Its black boxes may have already stopped transmitting.

The hunt continues but the search will be tough.

Little progress has been made since the 2009 crash of AF447 regarding flight tracking and the use of deployable flight recorders on commercial aircraft.

This has made the search for MH370 challenging. There is little information on the path the flight took after its onboard communication systems were deliberately shut down and the aircraft was taken off its intended path.

The mysterious disappearance of MH370 has again spurred efforts to track planes better.

Mr Tony Tyler, chief executive officer and director-general of the International Air Transport Association (Iata), declared: "We cannot let another aircraft simply disappear."

At an industry conference in Kuala Lumpur on April 1, the head of the global airline body said that Iata will form an expert panel to discuss the current gaps in aircraft tracking and how to plug them.

Recommendations will be submitted to the ICAO by the year end.

Next month, the ICAO will host a two-day meeting of state and industry experts to "try and increase current momentum on deliberations over the specific aircraft and satellite-based capabilities needed to permit global implementation of worldwide flight tracking", the authority said.

The global aviation community needs to do more than just "try". It must act now, firmly and decisively, to put in place corrective measures.

To ensure air safety, it is critical to have full information on why accidents happen so that similar events can be avoided.

For grieving families and friends, the only thing worse than losing their loved ones is not knowing how or why, or having to wait years for answers. Nobody should have to deal with such pain.


Key lessons from  Air France AF447

  • Make black boxes that float, not sink.
  • Have underwater locator beacons that last 90 days, not 30.
  • Make it mandatory for commercial aircraft to transmit basic flight information.
  • Ensure countries are equipped to conduct search and recovery operations.