The year that just ended was a most tragic one for the aviation industry.
Several disasters involving commercial jetliners occurred during the year, the latest one being AirAsia Flight 8501, which crashed into the sea off Indonesia on Dec. 28 with 162 people on board.
Search teams are still trying to retrieve all the victims, and the black boxes that could tell what happened in its last minutes.
In another case, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8 last year with 239 people aboard, remains missing.
Trying to find out the reasons for air disasters is often very costly, involving a lot of manpower, equipment and money.
It often depends on the recovery of the black box, which contains all flight data including cockpit conversations.
The problem is that when the plane crashes into the sea, its location is difficult to find and its recovery even more so.
Canadian airliner First Air believes its planes won’t disappear, although its routes are often beyond the reach of conventional radar as they extend up to the Artic Circle.
That’s because each of its planes is equipped with a tracking system that is just about the size of a hotel safe.
According to a Washington Post blog, the system remains dormant when the flight proceeds smoothly. But when something goes wrong, such as a sudden loss of altitude or engine vibrations, the system starts transmitting data to the ground, via satellite, every second.
Not only does the six-pound box transmit performance data, it also sends out information vital for search and rescue such as coordinates, speed and altitude.
That’s not the case with most commercial airlines. AirAsia Flight 8501 went down without relaying any information about its last moments of flight.
Airplanes have transponders that broadcast location, but those only work in tandem with radar, which make them useless when they crash into the deep ocean.
About three-fourths of the world’s airlines are also equipped with an Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System, which reports data back to the ground at predetermined intervals.
But again, if the plane crashes into the sea, the information could provide searchers with a field as wide as the US state of Texas and plenty of guesswork.
So why is it that airlines are not using a better system? Simple answer: money.
The system being used by First Air, designed by Calgary-based FLYHT Aerospace Solutions, costs about US$120,000 per plane, the newspaper said, citing FLYHT chief executive Bill Tempany.
For an airline like Delta, which has a fleet of 764, that would amount to US$90 million.
Despite all the enormous losses from the recent air tragedies, flying remains one of the safest modes of transport.
“Even though aircraft cannot be tracked in all cases, flying is safe. Over 100,000 flights operate safely every day,” the Post quoted Tony Tyler, chief of the International Air Transport Association, as saying.
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