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Sunday, 30 March 2014

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Aviation safety - 2

Last week in this column, I focused on aviation safety. This week too, we will take a look at this subject in the wake of Malaysia Airlines announcing that Flight MH370 ended in the Indian Ocean. We are no closer to solving the mystery of MH370, knowing very well that the Boeing 777 had flown on for at least seven hours more after its last air-to-ground transmission (“Good Night”).

As I stated last week, flying is the safest mode of transport available today. One accident, even a mysterious one, cannot change that fact. Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 was thus an exception to the norm. Still, many questions remain unanswered about the flight itself and the events that followed. Exactly what went wrong, and who was to blame, remain unclear, but there will be a barrage of uncomfortable questions that will haunt investigators for some years to come. In the meantime, there are plenty of things that aircraft manufacturers and airlines can do to ensure more safety in the air. Indeed, the hopes expressed by many airline industry watchers is that the tragedy of MH370 will spur more safety and security measures in the air and on the ground. That is normally the case after an air accident. From cameras in the cockpit to increased capacity flight data and voice recorders to black box transponders that detach on impact and float, there are many measures that have already been proposed.

The search for MH370 was made easier due to a system called Classic Aero, a type of Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) which transmits data on location, altitude, heading and speed of aircraft.

Throttles

ACARS can be turned off manually, via a switch on the ceiling of the cockpit or behind the throttles between the pilot and co-pilot. Classic Aero also has a second terminal that operates independently of ACARS and cannot be switched off while the aircraft still has power.

Every hour the system sends out a “ping” to satellites operated by Inmarsat which operates a string of communications and other satellites. The pings play no part in ACARS, and merely serve to synchronise timing information and keep the connection to the satellite network alive. The pings contain no information about location, heading or speed. The British Air Accident Investigation Board (AAIB) and Inmarsat worked together on these data to track the approximate flight path of the MAS 777.


An air base control tower

All airlines must be requested to install ACARS equipment. It should be made mandatory for all aircraft and the pilots should not be able to switch it off. It should be a completely automatic process. There is an even more modern system called the Automated Flight Information System, or AFIRS, which automatically monitors data such as location, altitude, and performance.

The data can be live-streamed when something goes wrong. The Automated Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) and Aeronautical Message Handling System (AHMS) are two other safety technologies. The worldwide satellite network should also be co-opted to enhance airliner safety. For example, a recently launched Boeing satellite does much more precise GPS calculations, accurate to within seven metres. There are several other aircraft safety systems, hardware and software, which the airline industry (including airports) is yet to install on all operational planes. Some of these are rather simple - for example, airlines can have a satellite phone at every seat which can be made available free of charge for emergencies.

FANS

All aircraft must gradually be fitted with the Future Air Navigation System (FANS), which has a very interesting feature called ADS-C (automatic dependent surveillance contract). In this system, an air traffic controller can set up a contract with the airplane navigational system to automatically send a position report on a specified periodic basis. The controller can also set up deviation contracts which would automatically send a position report if a certain lateral deviation was exceeded. The US National Transportation Safety Board had also been researching a new system that would uplink airplane data about a plane's location, direction, equipment functions and about 30 other parameters to orbiting satellites, which would then beam the data back to the ground for storage. In the event of a crash, that data could be easily accessed and analysed for clues.

It is true that the airline industry is sensitive to costs and is trying various ways to reduce expenditure on everything from fuel to handling fees. A system such as AFIRS costs around US$ 100,000 per plane to install - if a carrier has 50 planes in its fleet the overall cost is very high. Thus they are reluctant to install additional safety measures unless made mandatory by individual governments or via international regulations.

It is not only in the air that safety matters. If you watch the fascinating series “Air Crash Investigation’ on National Geographic, you would have seen that most crashed airliners had a mechanical defect which went undetected by ground crew. This should not be the case. Regular maintenance and inspection are essential.

Air Traffic Controllers must be given enhanced training and more countries should install advanced radars. Why not give at least some capabilities of military radar to civilian radar which is far more sensitive? More airports should also have Instrument Landing capabilities. Simulator training hours should be increased.

As experienced pilots go on retirement, airlines have a hard time getting new pilots - there should be more opportunities for the training of novice pilots. The precious lives of passengers cannot be measured in terms of money. No expense should be spared to ensure their safety.

The International Civil Aviation Authority must play an even more vibrant role in ensuring airliner safety and countries’ civil aviation authorities/airlines should work together with the ICAO.

Maximum passenger safety must be a priority for all airlines. Today's aircraft are so good they can literally fly themselves. But the human element still matters. In the end, airlines should not hesitate to install the latest safety equipment, whatever the costs incurred. It is always better to be safe than to be sorry.

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