Wednesday, February 25, 2015

House members urge airliners to have recorders that eject

At a House hearing Wednesday, lawmakers called for airliners to have flight recorders that eject and float during an emergency, in order to more easily find planes that crash in the ocean and learn what happened.

"We're really way behind the times on this," Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn., told the oversight subcommittee on transportation.

But international representatives of airlines and regulators said deployable recorders might not be necessary if airlines and air traffic controllers start tracking flights more closely.

Kevin Hiatt, senior vice president for safety at the International Air Transport Association, which represents 250 airlines, said deployable recorders would be redundant if airlines are streaming flight data by satellite directly from planes. He said flight tracking could be improved with equipment already aboard planes.

"There is no one-size-fits-all solution," Hiatt said.

The hearing came nearly a year after Malaysia Airlines flight 370 disappeared March 8 between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing with 239 people aboard. The search is now focused on a remote part of the Indian Ocean, based on brief satellite signals.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau, which is leading the search, said Wednesday the effort has combed a section of ocean floor the size of Vermont, which is about 40% of current plans. No trace of the plane has been found.

"It's absolutely unacceptable that today we are unable to locate or properly track a passenger aircraft," said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., the panel chairman who headed the hearing. "It's our responsibility to ensure that no commercial aircraft with passengers should be allowed to fly without a working tracking device."

The airline group, IATA, organized a task force that proposed in December that airlines know where their planes are every 15 minutes, although without dictating how.

But because airlines fly more than 500 mph, that could still leave a vague crash location. The National Transportation Safety Board has recommended tracking planes to within about 7 miles, without saying how.

The International Civil Aviation Organization, a branch of the United Nations that recommends airline policies, is asking its 191 member countries for comment this week about 15-minute tracking. The organization's goal is to adopt a policy in November, which would be applicable in November 2016, said Ambassador Michael Lawson, the U.S. representative to ICAO.

"We believe these basic procedures would significantly improve search and rescue responses in the event another tragedy were to occur," Lawson said.

Lawmakers voiced impatience with international efforts that aren't expected to mandate better flight tracking.

Duncan's legislation that would require ejectable recorders of cockpit voices and flight data, starting with planes ordered in January 2017.

"I think we're way past the time this should have been done," Duncan said.

Rep. David Price, D-N.C., also said ejectable recorders could be found and recovered faster than if attached to a plane at the bottom of the ocean.

"This is not a new matter," Price said.

Manufacturers have divided on the issue. At an NTSB meeting in October, Pascal Andrei, who coordinates Airbus' flight-data recovery project, said the company plans to install deployable recorders on its A350 and A380 aircraft and on the A320 family for planes flying over water.

But Mark Smith, an accident investigator for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said deployable recorders aren't always found and could lead to unintended problems if they ejected inadvertently over urban areas.

Military F-18 fighters intentionally deployed recorders 24 times since 2004, but recovered only 18 of them, Smith said.

"There is more than one way to solve this problem," Smith told NTSB. "Be aware that each of these options also has drawbacks that we have to be aware of when introducing into the commercial fleet." 

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