More and more airlines are taking advantage of quick-access recorders.

Paul Phelan/CAIRNS

The MAJOR QUALITY-CONTROL and cost-savings benefits delivered by quick-access flight-data recorders (QARs) are beyond debate, and most leading non-US carriers are already enjoying these benefits. Although some airlines have been surprisingly slow to adopt the technology, others have been operating programmes for up to 20 years, and all users are adamant that operational safety has been notably improved.

New developments have increased the quantity and quality of recoverable data, and the ease of its recovery and analysis, while reducing the capital cost. Recording capacity has been improved by data compression, on-board processing, and new storage techniques. In turn, increased recording capacity and digital downloading have also improved data-retrieval logistics, and, with constantly improving software, data reduction and analysis have become more efficient.

In the flight-operations area, a constant flow of information helps flight-training departments to detect trends as they develop, and to change type-conversion and recurrent-training emphases rapidly.

In a typical monthly analysis, fleet captains receive a report on their aircraft types, the number of sectors monitored and the frequency of events such as excessively high or low rotation, or climb-out speeds; bank-angle exceedances in various configurations; low-speed or late-landing flap selection; flap or gear-speed exceedances; and out-of-tolerance approach- speed excursions. Any notable trend receives immediate attention in the simulator department, the effectiveness of which can be monitored closely by QAR surveillance.


"It's effectively like having a check captain sitting behind every route operation," says Capt Bob Small, general manager of training for the Qantas Boeing 747-400 fleet. "The QAR shows you when the aeroplane has been operated outside limits, but, importantly, it also reveals trends that were not quite tripped as being outside limits, although they came fairly close. Because the information is de-identified, we only see which incident types, and how many, in each type of aircraft, were generating these outputs. It shows us where to target our training."

In common with a growing number of other operators, Qantas has developed sophisticated monitoring systems and methodologies to apply QAR outputs to the refinement of its recurrent crew-training. The carrier has also successfully negotiated a covenant with its pilot association, with which both parties are wholly at ease, as pilot association vice-president Toby Gurzansky confirms, saying: "It only requires trust on both sides, and we've managed to achieve that. A few people have needed educating over time, but the educating process seems to have solved the perceived problems, and people have mellowed. If you turn it into a blame system, it's going to cause problems, but anybody who approaches it with a little maturity and trust can make it work."

Apart from flight-operations monitoring, their most widely used application, QARs have also delivered significant benefits in areas as diverse as:

aircraft-performance monitoring, system audits, troubleshooting, trending and analysis;

engine-condition monitoring and derate measurement;

Category II/III automatic-landing certification/approach-performance measurement;

extended-range twin-operations analysis; air-traffic-control procedures analysis by airport;

differential global-positioning-system recording and certification; fatigue monitoring (in military applications);

noise-abatement monitoring;

incident investigation, along with warranty administration;

air-route-charges verification.

US carriers and the US Federal Aviation Administration were, until recently, among the most reluctant converts, despite a comprehensive 1993 Flight Safety Foundation (FSF) study, conducted for the FAA in 1993, which reports: "Implementation of FOQA [flight-operations quality assurance] must move forward. It will have a more immediate positive influence on Part 121 operational safety than any human-factors programme included in the FAA's research-and-development plans.

"Non-US airlines using FOQA are unanimous in their belief that a significant improvement in safety is being achieved that is not possible through other means."

An FAA report which followed the FSF study says: "Implementation has been hampered by the concerns of airline managements and pilots about the use of flight data for other than safety and operational-enhancement purposes." The report notes that airline concerns focus on increased liability and possible punitive FAA actions for rule infractions revealed by FOQA data, and that pilot concerns centre on possible punitive action by both airlines and the FAA, in both cases because "-possession of FOQA data by federal agencies makes these data subject to provisions of the Freedom Of Information [FOI] Act".

The report says that individual airline data must therefore first be de-identified so that they cannot be connected to a specific carrier, and that procedures to put that in place "-must be coupled with proper regulatory and, if necessary, legislative protection".

With solutions to those concerns now under development, FOQA seems to be well on the way to adoption by US carriers en masse, hugely expanding the market for QARs and related technology, and inevitably enhancing safety.

United Airlines was the first US carrier to adopt QARs, fitting about 30 units to its Airbus A320 fleet at its own expense. In an FAA-funded pilot project, Continental Airlines has now begun fitting 15 Penny & Giles QARs on its Boeing 737-500 fleet, and expects to complete the installations by mid-October. Continental Airlines manager of flight safety Al Baldwin says that all of the airline's new 737-700/800s and Boeing 757-200s will be fitted on delivery at the carrier's expense. Under the same FAA project, USAir is increasing the number of QAR-fitted 737-400s, from 14 to 21, and several "Level 3" carriers, including Alaska Airlines, Southwest and UPS, will also participate in the federally funded programme.


Baldwin says: "The FOI aspect is the single largest controversy in the use of QARs in this country. The first thing required was an agreement with our pilots, and we worked through this with the pilots' union. Before we ever got a contract with the FAA, we ensured that we had the necessary letters of agreement and memoranda of understanding, and the unions were very positive in their backing of the project. We now have assurances that the FAA will not use the data for any kind of punitive or enforcement action. An advisory circular is being written right now, which will eventually be written into law. Based on the verbal assurances they have given us and some internal securities we have, we're proceeding with the programme, but we're still looking for that to become law, so that information is not available other than in a sanitised fashion."

The protections being put in place by the FAA closely resemble those adopted in other countries, where all data are de-identified with respect to flight number or crew and, typically, only a company computer-systems analyst and a pilot-union nominee have access to those specifics. In Continental's agreements with the union, in an event such as a gross exceedance or a deliberate violation where individual corrective action is indicated, the union nominee provides the information to the union, which provides counselling, recommends additional training, or accedes to disciplinary action, according to the seriousness of the event.

Although most airlines have installed QARs on the basis of safety enhancement alone, and funded them from their safety budgets, the spin-off benefits are huge. British Airways, for example, maintains that it can now keep engines on-wing in its 747-400 fleet for 30% longer, because it can rule out false exhaust-gas-temperature exceedances and similar problems, rather than carrying out a precautionary engine change. United has already begun to save money on A320 flap-track replacements, because it identified, from QAR data, a systemic problem with pilots lowering the flap at excessive speed, which was causing extreme wear on flap tracks and rollers.

Soon after Qantas introduced the 747-400, the airline's QAR programme noted a high incidence of over-rotation and low initial climb-out speed on de-rated take-offs. Procedures for interpretation of flight-director commands for this aircraft have now been addressed in simulator training.

The FAA has commissioned Universal Technical Resource Services to develop quick start-up programmes for carriers and, separately, to examine cost benefits. Meanwhile, Penny & Giles, a major supplier of QARs, acknowledges: "Despite the tremendous flight-safety benefits, many operators require a more tangible return on investment."

The company has developed several examples of estimated cost savings. For example, based on a fleet of 20 four-engined aircraft operated for 4,000h a year, a saving of $900,000 can be gained from measurement of engine de-rate on take-off and climb-out, which allows engine manufacturers, regulatory agencies and airlines to recalculate the number of cycles between engine removals and overhauls, and provides maintenance credits on Group A and hot-section components. Although one airline has claimed 35% on-wing extensions, even 15% can increase on-wing time by 600h.


Fuel management and tailoring uploads to the specific fuel consumption of individual aircraft, based on QAR-derived fuel-consumption data rather than flight planning on worst-case fuel consumption, is another advantage.

The study says: "Even including full reserves and additional safety margins to eliminate a 'low-fuel' condition, a very conservative 0.1% saving, based on a 300-aircraft fleet size with an annual fuel consumption of 1.5 billion [US] gallons [5.7 billion litres], could save $1 million annually."

Using the QAR as a mass storage device and analysing the data on the ground also avoids the use of flight-critical software and is more economical for non-real-time applications than are some airborne-aircraft condition-monitoring systems. Penny & Giles estimates typical savings of $15,000 per aircraft per year.

The company quotes several other examples, all clearly illustrating positive cost benefits, and identifying the QAR as delivering not only no-cost enhancements to safety, but also notable operating economies.

Qantas, which first installed QARs along with data-extraction and analysis systems in the late 1980s, says that current systems, while vastly superior in capability, cost less than those available at that time.

Source: Flight International