Cost of a phone call

This article first appeared as a Comment in the 18 March issue of Flight International

The story of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 should compel the industry to revisit the subject of real-time flight tracking and emergency airborne data transmission. Five years ago, however, when Air France flight AF447 went missing over the South Atlantic, these subjects were reviewed, but nothing changed.
Ordinary air travellers have – again – expressed disbelief that $260 million worth of aeroplane packed with passengers, crew and freight can go missing, even for a short time, let alone for many days, without a trace. Their disbelief is understandable.
Aviation is at the leading edge of technological innovation, so it is difficult for travellers to understand why the pilots still communicate by HF radio while their passengers are talking to their offices on mobile phones via satellite; or why sharks can be tagged with a GPS chip that tracks their position in real time but aeroplanes are not; or why detailed flight data can be datalinked but is not continuously streamed, or at least transmitted in an emergency. The latter, the argument runs, would do away with the need to find and download information from flight data and cockpit voice recorders, so accident investigations could commence as soon as an aircraft crashed or went missing.
The answer boils down to money. Airlines use HF radio because there is no transmission cost, whereas cellphone communications are expensive. And data-streaming, especially over oceanic or wilderness areas, is costly and limited by available bandwidth. GPS tags for a shark may be cheap, but a crash-resistant aviation models would be far more costly.
So unless the International Civil Aviation Organisation agreed to make such usage standard, and then national aviation authorities everywhere were to make it compulsory, no airline could afford to do it unilaterally without putting itself at a cost disadvantage.
The other argument against data streaming is that an aircraft going missing is a very rare event, and even then the aircraft is, typically, soon found. To equip all aircraft for data streaming seems a high price to pay for getting information a little earlier.
The sensible solution is compromise: ICAO should lead the debate – again – because communications technology is becoming better and more affordable, so a technical solution that did not make sense just a few years ago might today be viable. But it is too early to presume that streaming should be compulsory; cost-benefit analysis may, reasonably, dictate otherwise.


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