This article appears as a comment piece in the April issue of Airline Business.
When a Rome-bound Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 767 landed in Geneva on 17 February, the story was only briefly in the headlines. The diversion was the result of the co-pilot hijacking his own aircraft while the captain was outside the cockpit, in a bid to claim political asylum.
The Ethiopian incident was extraordinary, for it marked the first time in living memory that an airline pilot employed by a reputable international carrier had done such a thing. But fast-forward less than three weeks and – the evidence so far suggests – flightcrew are again suspected of commandeering their own airliner. But this time the consequences were far more tragic.
It is worrisome that pilot suicide is one of the prime theories being considered for the loss of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, particularly as it is strongly suspected in another recent accident. Last November, a LAM E-Jet is believed to have been deliberately flown into the ground by the captain after he locked the co-pilot out of the cockpit, killing all 33 people on board.
The idea of any professional pilot taking such dreadful action is abhorrent, but the pain of the MH370 tragedy has been made even worse by the way the aircraft simply disappeared. While some of this can be explained by suspected deliberate actions in the cockpit, it still seems extraordinary to the public, media and aviation professionals alike that such a thing can happen to a modern jet in the 21st century.
The fact that the aircraft then apparently flew through the airspace of several countries without being detected has also raised some embarrassing national security questions for those involved.
The circumstances surrounding the 777’s disappearance are not unlike those five years ago involving Air France flight AF447. Both crashed into the ocean at night while in the cruise and between air traffic control handovers. And both disappearances took too long to be recognised.
AF447 compelled the industry to revisit the subject of real-time flight tracking and emergency airborne data transmission. After the crash these subjects were reviewed, but nothing changed.
Aviation is at the leading edge of technological innovation, so it is difficult for travellers to understand why the pilots still communicate by radio while their passengers talk to colleagues on mobile phones via satellite; or why pilots can apparently disable systems critical to tracking the aircraft or identifying faults; or why flight data can be datalinked but is not continuously streamed – or transmitted in an emergency.
No pilot would be comfortable having a piece of equipment on board that cannot be isolated in the event of a malfunction. Significantly, a Boeing 787 was badly damaged by fire last year while parked after a suspected fault with its emergency locator transmitter.
Real-time data streaming could allow accident investigations to commence as soon as an aircraft crashed or went missing without the need to locate the data recorders. But such a system is costly and limited by available bandwidth.
So unless ICAO agreed to make such usage standard and it was mandated globally, no airline could afford to do it unilaterally without putting itself at a cost disadvantage.
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 difficult though this may be, a way forward for the industry around streaming may be the easier challenge emanating from the MH370 tragedy. Legislating for rogue flightcrew behaviour – if this indeed is the cause – will prove much harder for the industry to address.