A Germanwings Airbus A320 crashed Tuesday morning in the French Alps, with approximately 150 people on board. In a statement to the press, French President François Hollande articulated the worst fears of the friends and relatives of those on board.
“The conditions of the accident, which have not yet been clarified, suggest that there might not be any survivors,” he said.
Now that one of the plane’s black box recorders has been found, authorities stand a better chance of determining what exactly went wrong. These devices document radio transmissions, pilot voices and such information as the plane’s altitude and speed. They are required on all large commercial aircraft by the Federal Aviation Administration, and they are often critical to uncovering the cause of a crash.
Despite their importance, black boxes use technology that is hardly state-of-the-art. Older units store data on magnetic tape, and while newer units use digital technology, they still have to be found at the crash site, which is not an exact science by any means. For example, after Air France Flight 447 crashed in 2009, the flight data recorder wasn’t recovered until 2011.
A company that’s currently addressing the deficiencies in this system is Canada’s Flyht Aerospace Solutions. It offers an Automated Flight Information System, which costs approximately $100,000 to install, can live-stream the airplane’s performance data, and sends updates from the cockpit every five to 10 minutes. Most importantly, the system can recognize such irregularities as deviations in the flight path, and responds by streaming data every second.
Other airlines are pursuing similar upgrades. In January, Bloomberg reported Qatar Airways plans to equip its fleet with an automatic tracking system amid an industry-wide push to prevent incidents such as the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 last year in the Indian Ocean.
The technology is being tested now ahead of a fleet-wide rollout. It transmits data from a plane’s flight-data recorder to the airline operations center, Chief Executive Officer Akbar Al Baker told Bloomberg.
Not many other airlines plan to follow suit, and the reason for the pushback is simple and predictable: money, notes Mary Schiavo, former inspector general of the Department of Transportation.
"[Airlines] simply will not add additional safety measures unless mandated by the federal government," she told CNN.
A more cost-effective improvement is also up for consideration: black boxes that can be ejected from the plane.
In January, Reuters reported that the International Civil Aviation Organization, a specialized agency of the United Nations, had proposed using them on commercial airliners, and they’re already standard equipment on some U.S. Navy jets. But at approximately $30,000 apiece, there’s still resistance to using them. After all, the widely-used, non-deployable recorders manufactured by Honeywell International cost about half that.
The Germanwings tragedy is still unfolding, and it’s possible that a considerable amount of time may pass before investigators can determine the probable cause of the crash. Until newer, better technology is adopted across the board in the airline industry, finding out what exactly went wrong in situations such as these is likely to remain a waiting game.
—Daniel Bukszpan is a New York-based freelance writer.