Jan 19, 2019 | Updated: 08:24 AM EST

Germanwings Plane Crash: Why Do We Still Use Black Boxes?

Mar 26, 2015 06:35 PM EDT


While the world is still grieving the loss of the 150 people who were killed in Germanwings airplane crash last Tuesday - and finding hard not to recall several recent airliner tragedies -, many are wondering why we are still looking for black boxes in a digital age.

If the technology that would allow the missing flight's condition, cockpit conversations, engine performance and other data to be streamed real-time back to the airline's headquarters exists, then why are we not using it?

Although this information would certainly help investigators find what went wrong in a matter of days rather than months or years, experts note that there are bureaucratic, technical and cost-related factors at play.

Some note, for example, that the large volumes of data that this type of real-time tracking entails would produce terabytes of data that would supersede the technical capabilities of existent satellite transmission and digital storage devices.

"It is technically feasible, but the question is whether it is worth the cost," said John Hansman, director of the International Center for Air Transportation at MIT in an interview with Discovery.com. "I would rather have good air traffic control communications supporting better pilot decision making rather than using bandwith to dump data off airplanes."

According to the Telegraph, even if data is only streamed in extreme circumstances when the plane behaves unexpectedly, these systems are expensive to install, with the FLYHT Aerospace system reportedly costing $120,000 per plane. Additionally, this would require additional investments in the training of pilots and ground in the use of the systems. Since these new technologies are likely to only be used in very rare circumstances, the airline industry is cautious about spending money on it.

In terms of the rights of airline pilots and workers, the British Airline Pilots Association has in the past said that it would require significant reassurances that black box data would only be used during crash investigations. This points to the possibility that an international agreement on tracking standard would be difficult to reach.

The Daily Beast notes that even if costs were not an issue, bureaucracy still is. He cites the case of the disappearance of MH370. Almost a year after the tragedy, the two international bodies responsible for airline safety, the International Civil Aviation Organization and the International Air Transport Association, were still waiting for task forces to decide what technology would be used to solve the problem of finding airplanes that crash into the oceans. 

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