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
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
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,
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.
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
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.