1. AirAsia flight QZ8501 crash makes case for ejectable black boxes

AirAsia flight QZ8501 crash makes case for ejectable black boxes

A long-delayed proposal to outfit commercial airliners with ejectable "black box" recorders may have a better chance of being adopted following the AirAsia flight QZ8501 crash in the Java Sea...

By: | Toronto/montreal | Updated: January 8, 2015 10:03 PM
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Indonesian navy divers arrive after conduct operations to lift the tail of AirAsia flight in Java sea on January 8, 2015. Indonesia said on January 7, 2015 it had found the tail of AirAsia Flight QZ8501, potentially marking a major step towards locating the plane’s black boxes and helping shed light on what caused it to crash into the sea ten days ago. (AFP)

A long-delayed proposal to outfit commercial airliners with ejectable “black box” recorders may have a better chance of being adopted following the AirAsia flight QZ8501 crash in the Java Sea, according to three sources at the U.N. global aviation body.

The idea, which would equip commercial flights with black boxes that detach from the plane and float in water rather than sink, has bounced around International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) committees for years and is back on the agenda at its High-Level Safety Conference in February, the first of its kind in five years.

ICAO wants to develop a global system to improve plane tracking and ensure accident sites are found quickly as part of its response to the disappearance of a Malaysian airliner last year.

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A relative holds a dove near the coffins of victims of AirAsia Flight 8501 Yongki Jou, left, and his son Brian Youvito Jou, during their cremation procession in Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia, Thursday, Jan. 8, 2015. (AP)

“The time has come that deployable recorders are going to get a serious look,” said an ICAO representative who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue. Deployable is the industry term for black boxes that detach from the plane when it crashes.

A second ICAO official familiar with the discussions said that public attention has galvanized momentum in favor of ejectable recorders on commercial aircraft.

“I think there’s a more positive attitude now because of the last few accidents,” he said in reference to AirAsia and an Air France flight that crashed in 2009 in the Atlantic. The Air France black boxes weren’t found until 2011.

Investigators said on Wednesday they have found the tail of the AirAsia plane, which crashed off the coast of Borneo on Dec. 28, killing 162 people, indicating the crucial black box may be nearby

Relatives lay flowers on the coffin of victims of AirAsia Flight 8501 Yongki Jou and his son Brian Youvito Jou, during their cremation procession in Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia, Thursday, Jan. 8, 2015. Divers were hoping to zero in on the flight's black boxes Thursday, after search and recovery operations got a much-needed boost with the discovery of a chunk of the plane's tail - nearly two weeks after it plummeted into the sea, killing everyone onboard. (AP

Relatives lay flowers on the coffin of victims of AirAsia Flight 8501 Yongki Jou and his son Brian Youvito Jou, during their cremation procession in Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia, Thursday, Jan. 8, 2015. Divers were hoping to zero in on the flight’s black boxes Thursday, after search and recovery operations got a much-needed boost with the discovery of a chunk of the plane’s tail – nearly two weeks after it plummeted into the sea, killing everyone onboard. (AP)

Montreal-based ICAO, established in 1947, sets standards followed on most international flights, as the guidelines it develops typically become regulatory requirements in its 191 member states.

In 2012, ICAO’s Flight Recorder Panel drafted a broad standard meant to make it easier to locate crash sites, including the use of ejectable recorders as one of several options, along with continuously tracking flights.

But according to recently released documents, ICAO’s powerful Air Navigation Commission sent that standard back to the panel twice “for reconsideration,” while it approved other changes, including longer battery life for conventional black boxes. ICAO did not immediately comment on why the panel’s drafts had been rejected.

Ejectable recorders were invented by the Canadian government’s National Research Council in the 1960s and thousands are installed on fighter jets, including the U.S. Navy’s F/A-18 jets, and small aircraft, like helicopters.

Unlike military recorders which jettison away from a plane and float on water, signaling their location to search and rescue satellites, recorders on commercial flights sink. Underwater, they can only be detected over short distances.

DRS Technologies, a subsidiary of Italy’s Finmeccanica SpA , has built some 5,000 devices that are mostly on military planes. Its recorder costs about $30,000, said Blake van den Heuvel, director for air programs.

“This has been the pushback by (planemakers) and regulators – that deployables cost more,” van den Heuvel said.

The family of an AirAsia QZ8501 passenger leaves the identification area at Bhayangkara hospital in Surabaya January 7, 2015. Flight QZ8501 vanished from radar screens over the northern Java Sea on Dec. 28, less than half-way into a two-hour flight from Indonesia's second-biggest city of Surabaya to Singapore. There were no survivors among the 162 people on board. REUTERS

The family of an AirAsia QZ8501 passenger leaves the identification area at Bhayangkara hospital in Surabaya January 7, 2015. Flight QZ8501 vanished from radar screens over the northern Java Sea on Dec. 28, less than half-way into a two-hour flight from Indonesia’s second-biggest city of Surabaya to Singapore. There were no survivors among the 162 people on board. (REUTERS)

Modern commercial aircraft already have two fixed recorders. An ejectable black box could be installed in the tail, replacing one. But the technology is untested on large, commercial aircraft because of cost concerns and the lack of political will to require them.

A spokesman for Honeywell International Inc, one of the largest makers of black boxes, said the company doesn’t manufacture ejectable recorders because it has not been required to do so by regulators or by its customers. Honeywell’s widely used, non-ejectable recorders cost about $13,000 to $16,000 each.

Mike Poole, a former expert on flight recorders with the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, said transmitting data in real time would be a better solution.

“The current fixed recorders are highly reliable and cost effective and it is rare to not recover them,” said Poole, who now heads an Ottawa-based aviation consulting company.

Asked about ejectable black boxes, airline industry group the International Air Transport Association said: “There has not yet emerged an industry consensus on a mandate for ejectable flight data recorders.”

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