As I am writing this article the Boeing 777 flight MH370 that disappeared on 8 March has still not been found. This is distressing for all the relatives from the people on board, the aviation industry, pilots and the general public as a whole.
How can we explain that in times when there are more than 1000 satellites in space, and technology tracks almost every move we make, we have not found any trace of this aircraft?
The disappearance of MH370 illustrates that live tracking of commercial aircraft is far behind the technical possibilities that exist today. For this reason regulators, airlines, pilots and the public are calling for a reliable system for the tracking of aircraft. This is a good thing. When something goes wrong it is of upmost importance that search and rescue teams find the aircraft and its survivors as soon as possible. Increasing the life of the batteries of location beacons is also a welcome and necessary step in that direction.
But now the regulators have also felt an urgency to increase exponentially the recording times of Cockpit Voice Recorders (CVR) from 2 to 20 hours. A new EASA opinion, which ECA is currently evaluating, has been published in early May. While it can be argued how this could be practically implemented or whether it will be useful at all, we know for sure that increasing the recording time will certainly have a negative impact on the privacy of pilots during their work.
When pilots agreed to record their conversations in the cockpit in the 1960s, it was under the provision that it would be used solely for accident investigations. It was after the investigation of the 1960 crash of Trans Australia Airlines Flight 538 at Mackay (Queensland) that the inquiry judge strongly recommended that flight recorders be installed in all airliners. We, as pilots, agreed to this as we understand the need to learn from what happened during an accident or incident. It can prevent future similar events. No other profession in the world allows recordings during their work – not even surgeons – where cameras have the potential to help learn from past mistakes.
However, since then we see that those recordings risk becoming public, being used in newspapers, TV reports, books, movies and judicial investigations. And increasing the CVR recording duration 10 times also increases the risk that big amounts of recordings end up in the public domain.
New technologies give us the tools to improve aviation safety. But let’s assess the pros and cons of longer CVR recording times and how the data can be adequately protected. And above all, let’s first find the MH370 to solve the mystery we have at hand now.
by Nico Voorbach