Following incidents in which airliners vanished, U.S. accident investigators recommended Thursday that all passenger planes making long flights over water carry improved technology that will allow them to be found more readily in the event of a crash.
Responding in part to the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 carrying 239 passengers and crew last March, the National Transportation Safety Board said that could be accomplished with transmitters that broadcast a plane's location minute by minute via satellite, or that send a location message just before a crash.
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Another recommendation was for floating emergency transmitters that can identify where to search for wreckage on the bottom of the ocean.
The board also asked the government to require that planes be equipped with cockpit video recorders and that their recordings, as well as flight data and video recorders, be designed so flight crews can't tamper with them.
But cost may be a big barrier to the recommendations. Missing planes are rare, and none of the recent ocean crashes in which planes were hard to find involved U.S. airliners. The Federal Aviation Administration often has a hard time justifying new regulations unless it can show that the value of saved lives outweighs the cost to the industry.
The NTSB said the technology is available to accomplish its recommendations. Many airliners already have flight-tracking devices. The Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777, which is still missing, was equipped with a digital data-link system that can be configured to automatically report aircraft position periodically to a ground station via satellite. But the airline wasn't paying for that service when the plane disappeared.
Air France Flight 447, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on June 1, 2009, killing 228 passengers and crew, also had such a system, and it was in use. However, it was configured to report the plane's position once every 10 minutes. Given the plane's speed and altitude, this resulted in a search area of 40 nautical miles from its last reported position.
"Such a large area made the search much more challenging," the board said in a letter to the FAA. If the plane had reported its position every minute, the search area could have been reduced to a 6-nautical-mile radius, the board said.
Even though some wreckage was discovered within days, it took two years before Flight 447's black boxes were recovered. In 2011, Air France modified its data-link communications systems on long-haul planes to report their position every minute.
Other options include systems that periodically transmit their identification, current position, altitude and speed to air traffic controllers and other aircraft using satellite links. The FAA has required that all U.S. airliners be equipped with such systems by 2020 as it transitions from a radar-based air traffic control system to one based on satellite technology.
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