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Why Don't Planes Stream Their Flight Data In Real Time?


Stormy weather over the southern Indian Ocean today once again squelched the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Bad weather may be a recurring problem there as the Southern Hemisphere edges toward winter. Satellite data points investigators to those remote seas. There have also been satellite images of floating objects. But so far, no debris has been positively identified, and the search area is still huge.

Experts say the disappearance of the Boeing jet wouldn't be such a mystery if it had been streaming its location data. Here's NPR's Brian Naylor.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Flight 370 disappeared from radar screens when the plane's transponder, which sends out its location, for some reason stopped transmitting. But what if the Boeing 777 had streamed at least some of the data out in real time? We might have a much clearer picture of what happened to the plane, and why. Advocates have been calling on airlines to install such devices for years.

Matt Bradley is president of FLYHT Aerospace Solutions, a Canadian company that's developed a system that can transmit data continuously or when triggered by an unexpected event like engine failure or cabin depressurization.

MATT BRADLEY: In the event that that happens, an alert is sent to the airline operational control center where a screen lights up, there's an oral alert; and there is - in no uncertain terms do you know there's an abnormality on that aircraft, and we need to look out.

NAYLOR: Computer science professor Krishna Kavi, of the University of North Texas, says not all of the data available in a black box needs to be streamed in real time.

KRISHNA KAVI: So if you are over an ocean and the satellite is expensive, only send your altitude, your direction of travel - or GPS coordinates, if you want - and state of the engines; are they running OK? So minimal information you know that you need so that if you detect there is something wrong, then you ask for additional information.

NAYLOR: The Malaysia Airline jet's last contact was with a satellite system run by Inmarsat. The company's vice president, Chris McLaughlin, says technology is already available to send short bursts of data every few minutes. He says the Air France jetliner that went down in the Atlantic in 2009 had that technology, and it meant recovery crews could quickly narrow the search area. The Malaysia Airline jet, McLaughlin says, did not.

CHRIS MCLAUGHLIN: The Air France had elected to adopt a system of bursting information from the plane every four minutes. Malaysian, because it's not mandated, didn't do anything. Now, that's nobody's fault, that's just not mandated. I mean, if one thing is to come out of this tragedy, it should be that all aircraft are mandated to give their position on a regular interval.

NAYLOR: Cost is clearly one obstacle to more widespread deployment of streaming technology. The system developed by the Canadian firm FLYHT would cost airlines $100,000 per plane to install. Another concern involves the pilots, who see too much information readily available as an invasion of their privacy.

Sean Cassidy is first vice president of the Airline Pilots Association International, the pilots union. Cassidy, an Alaska Airlines captain, is fine with aircraft streaming more data, but he draws the line at cockpit conversations.

SEAN CASSIDY: Say I go on an eight-hour trip with my copilot. And every single conversation, every single personal story, stories about our families and everything else, is being streamed live to somewhere? How is that information going to be safeguarded?

NAYLOR: It will likely take the FAA to mandate real-time data transmissions for them to be adopted by all carriers. The agency's next generation air traffic control system is based on satellite navigation, but it's unclear when next gen will be fully in place.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.
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