Opinion: Commercial Aviation Must Double Down On Safety
As our nation struggles with the coronavirus pandemic, a crucial industry is working its way out of an economic depression the likes of which it has not seen since 9/11. That national tragedy damaged airline service for years, and even with new COVID-19 vaccines, no clear end is in sight for this downturn.
One of the big issues airlines and regulators face is where to place priorities while the industry struggles with unprecedented financial constraints. Certainly, health in the cabin must remain at the forefront. But as representatives of thousands who have lost loved ones in airliner crashes, the National Air Disaster Foundation (NADF) insists that the safety of commercial aircraft, and operations as a whole, remain the ultimate priority.
Even before the COVID-19 crisis, the aviation industry—with one prominent exception—pushed to the back burner requirements that airlines and manufacturers always know where their aircraft are, and most importantly, quickly learn the cause of any crash. It’s been six years since Malaysia Airlines 370, with 239 souls aboard, took off from Kuala Lumpur on a routine flight to Beijing—and within a half hour, seemed to disappear from the face of the Earth.
But of course, that Boeing 777 didn’t fly into some parallel universe; it is somewhere under water. The fact that we do not know exactly where the jetliner is after all this time is unfathomable in the 21st century.
Although the Malaysia crash may seem an extreme example, there are other recent cases where airliners have vanished over expanses of water, and we have waited far too long to track down the aircraft and their critical black boxes. In 2009, Air France 447 with 228 people aboard, disappeared during a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris. It took two years to find the Airbus 330’s flight recorders, confirming that an important mechanical issue with fleetwide impact had caused the crash.
More recently, it took 78 days to recover the cockpit voice recorder, revealing the struggles of Lion Air 610’s pilots as they desperately tried to regain control of their aircraft—the first of two Boeing 737 MAX airliners that crashed.
Again, the Jan. 9 crash of Sriwijaya Air Flight SJ 182 Indonesia is a painful reminder of the complications and unnecessary delays that come with trying to recover both the flight data and cockpit voice recorders from aircraft wreckage at the bottom of the ocean. It further reinforces the call for airlines and aircraft manufacturers to start installing newer, readily available black box technologies that eliminate the need for underwater searches altogether.
This is not just a matter of interest to investigators. Speedy determination of cause is imperative to prevent future crashes, but as extraordinary as it seems, quick knowledge of the aircraft’s location also means a chance to reach survivors. In 2009, Yemeni Air Flight 626, an Airbus A310, crashed into the Indian Ocean with 153 people onboard. A sole teenage girl was rescued, but her accounts indicated that other survivors perished while waiting to be found.
Sadly, risks to aviation safety have only increased as airlines work to address unexpected aircraft mechanical issues from extended COVID-19 groundings, and pilots and crews work to replenish their skill sets after months of downtime.
Other crashes, such as the Malaysia and Air France jetliners, prompted new rules to improve tracking the location of downed aircraft and the black boxes that hold crucial data. But enthusiasm to put those rules into action seems to have waned.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the United Nations body that establishes commercial aviation safety standards, initially set a January 2021 deadline for a “one ping per minute” automatic distress technology to be oncommercial aircraft. But that mandate has been pushed back two years, and experts are questioning whether it is the best solution when other, commercially available technologies exist today that can better pinpoint the exact location of the aircraft, without a “search” at all.
Likewise, new rules to help investigators recover black box data without an underwater search were weakened by ICAO to only a vague requirement for recorder recovery in a “timely manner”—an undefined term that applies to aircraft only far into the future.
Despite these regulatory disappointments, Airbus, one of the two largest commercial aircraft manufacturers in the world, is not waiting for regulations. The company is installing a commercial version of the automatic deployable flight recorder system that the U.S. military has used for decades. This system floats in the water while pinging the exact location of the downed aircraft, survivors and the black box data immediately following a crash and eliminates the need to search the ocean depths.
Airbus must be commended for not sacrificing important safety initiatives at a time when many could, and likely will, use COVID-19 as an excuse to let nonrevenue-generating improvements fall by the wayside.
As commercial aviation faces this forced industry reset, our families call on all responsible entities—ICAO, the U.S. FAA, international regulatory bodies, aircraft manufacturers and airlines—to commit not only to new COVID-19 safety standards of aircraft cleanliness, masking up and social distancing but also to install common-sense and long overdue safety tools that give our loved ones and the traveling public the answers, transparency and quick action we deserve following aviation accidents in the future.
Our families cannot face another crash, followed by an agonizing wait to find the downed aircraft or the cause. Now more than ever, the industry must double down on safety.
—Matthew Ziemkiewicz is president and Gail Dunham is executive director of the National Air Disaster Foundation, founded by air crash survivors and victims’ family members.