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AirAsia QZ8501 Still Not Found - Time for Real Time Flight Tracking?

Photo of Brian Humphrey

Sunday's disappearance of AirAsia flight QZ8501-which has not yet been located as of the time of this writing-has left the families of its 162 passengers and crew in anguished suspense. These families are surely devastated by the certain knowledge of the loss of their loved ones, yet the ongoing search for the airliner's wreckage cruelly allows at least some to cling to the likely vain hope for a miracle. This is to say nothing of the families of those lost in Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, who have now been waiting more than nine months for their loved ones to be fund.

In addition to denying closure to those suffering from this tragedy, the delay in finding the remains of the aircraft postpones the investigation as to how the disaster came about. It also raises the question: How can it be possible to lose track of a modern airliner in this age of GPS and instant global communication?

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After all, nearly every person in the developed world who owns a smartphone also owns the means to find that phone almost anywhere in the world if it is lost, through the phone's internal GPS and apps like Find My iPhone. If a smartphone costing a few hundred dollars has this capability, then why not a $200 million aircraft like the Airbus A320-200 lost on Sunday?

Currently, most airliners have only the traditional flight data recorder, or "black box," to help investigators determine when, where, and how a plane crash occurred after the fact. These "black boxes," which are actually painted orange for visibility, carry radar and sonar beacons to aid in their location after a crash. However, these features amount to little for those attempting to find QZ8501's recorder in what is now a 60,000 square mile search area.

Ever since the Air France flight 447 disaster in 2009-and the subsequent two-year, $40 million search for its remains in the South Atlantic-there have been increasing calls for airliners to mount real time flight data uplinks. Where the current system only records flight data onto an onboard "black box," a real time system would continually transmit this data to air traffic controllers or the airline via satellite. That way, those on the ground could know the position and status of aircraft at all times anywhere in the world, and could immediately know when and where an aircraft is lost, allowing rapid search and perhaps even rescue operations. In addition, the constant "backing up" of flight data recordings to satellite would allow investigators access to this data even if the "black box" is destroyed or unrecoverable.

Yet, despite four years of calls for what one might consider basic equipment given the widespread availability of this technology, regulators such as the FAA and the International Civil Aviation Organization have yet to mandate their use on airliners. One concern is cost of the satellite bandwidth, which is estimated at $1 per kilobyte. However, even a system which provided only basic information like location, course, speed, and altitude and updated only every few seconds rather than in real time would be a vast improvement over current airliners' equipment, which can only be tracked when within range of ground-based radar and communications.

As the Air France, Malaysia Airlines, and now AirAsia disasters have shown, this simple capability would pay immediate dividends in allowing faster investigation of crashes, providing swifter closure to families, lowing the cost of searches, and perhaps even allowing the rescue of passengers. Compared to the cost-both in treasure and in grief--of the long searches for these lost aircraft, the price of a few pieces of electronic equipment and a few bytes of satellite bandwidth seems rather affordable.

If you or someone you know has been injured or killed in an aviation accident, contact an attorney at Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Agosto & Friend by calling 713-222-7211 or toll free at 1-800-870-9584.

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