Airlines expect 27.3 million U.S. passengers to fly around the world this holiday season, nearly 3% more than last year. And for each passenger boarding their flight, there is no more important priority than taking off and landing safely.
Given the high volume of flights especially during peak travel season, the airlines overall seem to deliver a safe travel experience for air travelers. Though the last three years have been marked by high-profile coverage of airplane crashes and missing aircrafts, the reality is that airlines are extremely safe and only getting safer. This is due in large part to the continued innovation that makes commercial flights the most efficient and safe mode of travel in the world. But one accident or one life lost is one too many, so the question will always be: what can we do to make commercial flight even safer?
According to Boeing’s 2015 Statistical Summary of Commercial Jet Airplane Accidents, 2015 commercial air travel saw 28 total accidents based on 27 million departures. That is slightly more than one out of one million, according to government’s definition of an accident. While this seems relatively safe, we still deem these odds too high. This statistic leaves us asking why — in today’s connected world – the accident rate is not even lower? Despite all the advances in technology, arcane practices still used by airlines result in incidents that leave safety regulators scratching their heads and air passengers questioning how safe they really are on their next flight.
For example, Malaysia Airlines flight 370 went down more than two and a half years ago, and we still don’t know what happened. The events that transpired, which could offer valuable lessons to be used to keep future flights safe, remain shrouded in mystery. Even for the more recent Egypt Air Flight 804 – which crashed into the Mediterranean on its way to Cairo from Paris in May, 2016 – the exact cause of the crash remains unknown.
The search for such crash sites and the flight data recorders for these aircraft – critical to identifying what transpired in the event of an accident – is largely guesswork in many cases. The search teams used the same estimates we have been relying for decades, despite the superior technology that exists and is readily available today. As we know all too well, this results in multi-million dollar searches for lost aircraft accompanied by the agonizing wait endured by family members, left totally in the dark about the fate of loved ones.
There are really only two possible options to begin investigating the cockpit voice and flight data immediately following an incident. The first, which is incredibly challenging, would be to fit aircraft with deployable recorders – recorders which eject while the aircraft is in flight or as it is crashing. This possibility is intellectually intriguing but is wrought with challenges. It takes us back to a 20th century concept of operations, still having to locate and recover the recorders, which takes time and resources. Additionally, deployable systems can and have deployed at the wrong time over populated areas, and if the incident occurs in mountainous or difficult to access terrain, the deployable does no good.
The other possibility is to stream the recorder data from the aircraft while it is in flight. This offers the value of not only providing the actual location of the aircraft, but also an understanding of how it is – its real-time status. Data can be streamed as a result of a “trigger” that might occur during a flight incident. Or, data could simply be streamed throughout the flight for routine flight status information.
Either way, having immediate access to this data on a secure server is the 21st century solution and the most efficient way for accident investigators to immediately begin their evaluation of an incident. Some companies even now offer systems that will stream flight data in real-time to provide a reliable solution to the problem of missing aircraft.
We have made remarkable strides in commercial aviation safety, limiting incidents to a one-in-a-million probability. But that is still too high and there is more to be done. We have the technology to make airline travel even safer – and we need to use it.
Mark V Rosenker is the 11th Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). He is also a member of the board of directors for FLYHT Aerospace Solutions.