Opinion: The Time Is Ripe For Live Flight Data Streaming

The fallout from two fatal Boeing 737-8 accidents in five months, still in its early stages, is likely to be substantial. Changes to the 737 MAX are in the works, though the seeds for the much-needed flight-control upgrades were sown following last October’s Lion Air Flight 610 (JT610) accident. Certification processes could change as well. Will regulators delegate less to industry? And to what degree will a regulator accept a fellow agency’s technical analysis rather than verify for itself that a foreign-made article meets its local standards?
Simply put, many are demanding more certainty.
The way the MAX was grounded was a marked departure from past airline accidents, when the U.S. FAA and sister agencies around the world worked in coordination and did not rush to judgment. But within 24 hr. of the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 (ET302) crash, regulators and operators, wary of two 737-8 accidents in such a short period of time, began banning MAX flight operations. The little data available from ET302 was not enough to link it to JT610, but the pressure to act first and validate later was significant. The fleet was grounded more than two full days before the ET302 flight data recorder (FDR) information was downloaded.
Public support of the grounding was overwhelming, and many in the industry, from union members to some operators, lauded the proactive move. The FAA—the last regulator to issue a MAX operations ban as it held out for more information, preferably from the ET302 flight data recorder—was seen as a dinosaur. Reports suggest that the White House, not technical experts, made the final call.
That is disturbing.
The desire to play it safe is understandable, but the air transport industry’s steadily improving fatal accident rate is not the result of hedging bets. It is driven by a deliberate, data-driven approach to risk analysis. The process takes time, however, which is something that a public increasingly expecting instant answers may no longer be willing to accept. When the next air transport aircraft goes down, will the public accept a wait-and-see approach?

Credit: Boeing/Leo Dejillas
It turns out that it may not have to—and data-driven safety experts might not have to compromise much, either.
A path to a middle ground is being blazed based on work that stems from the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in 2014 and Air France Flight 447 in 2009. The most widely discussed resulting changes from those two accidents are new International Civil Aviation Organization standards for tracking aircraft, included in Amendment 40 to ICAO Annex 6. But Amendment 40 includes another element that could ultimately prove to be more useful: timely access to flight data.
Airlines could meet the ICAO standard, which goes into effect in 2021, by streaming FDR data while in flight. And providers of the necessary hardware, software and communications services are teaming up to offer timely flight data to operators. On Boeing’s most recent EcoDemonstrator trials, for example, data streamed from the Fed-Ex 777F used in the tests offered a live snapshot of the aircraft’s activity, plus a 20-min. buffer of data both before and after the so-called triggering event, such as an abrupt altitude change.
The data stream also was used to create a live, graphical depiction of what the aircraft was doing, complete with key flight deck instruments, visible to participants on the ground. The tests, which utilized the Inmarsat and Iridium global satellite networks, included a dedicated microphone that captured and off-loaded cockpit sounds, too.
Widely implementing triggered flight data would require resolution of some issues such as: What triggers the system? Which parameters are streamed? Where does the data go? How would access to it be managed? And, critically, how can the information be kept secure? But none of these are insurmountable.
If the FAA and other regulators had had access to ET302 data, the grounding scenario would have been different. If it could have been confirmed that the causes of the ET302 and JT610 accidents were similar, as now seems to be the case, MAX aircraft would have been parked quickly and with justifiable data to support the move. This would have satisfied both the public’s concern and the safety community’s insistence on reasonable, measured actions.
Making a call on whether to ground an aircraft based on a brief look at FDR data may not be ideal. But it is far more reasonable than making the call without it


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