AF447 Crash Triggers Debate on Data Streaming

Following the AF447 crash on June 1st 2009, the EU Commissioner for Transport decided to fund a project that investigates ways to track airplanes effectively, especially in oceanic and remote low-density airspace. The project is called 'Oceanic Position Tracking Improvement & Monitoring (OPTIMI)'. While potentially offering new safety enhancements the project also raises a number of questions.

The EU initiative is not the only one. The AF447 crash, as well as other difficult sea recovery operations, has prompted the French Accident Investigation Bureau (BEA) to create an international working group in order to look into new technology to safeguard flight data and/or to facilitate the localisation and recovery of on-board recorders. ECA/IFALPA have 2 representatives involved in this work, which will also result in a paper for adoption at the ICAO Safety Conference in March 2010.

The two initiatives look at the same topic from different angles. The BEA proposes solutions to enhance the recovery of flight data after an accident, to assess the technical feasibility of each solution, and present the maturity as well as the cost of the solution. The EU Commission is looking at two clear aspects: aircraft tracking and downloading the flight data recorder (FDR).

ECA supports these initiatives. However, the proposed ways of research raises technical and legal challenges.

Technically there are capacity issues with the data-link. The data flow will have to be selective as the bandwidth could not accommodate the full FDR data. Furthermore, the data-link is not secure. Appendication and confidentiality still remain the hot issues that IFALPA has long been fighting to clarify. With regard to the BEA work, it is important also that they consider encryption and data protection, as a priority.

On the legal side, ECA and IFALPA are both working hard together to ensure also that the pilots’ privacy interests are protected in the future and that all the necessary elements are put on the table in the development of new technologies.