Why are airlines stuck in the electronic middle ages?

I work with CNN running a few hours a day, especially in the morning. This morning, part of the discussion over the disappearance of Malaysian flight 370 has revolved around why are we still dependent upon "black boxes" (which are, in fact, high-visibility orange) and cockpit voice recorders which only have the ability to record two hours of conversation. Because large areas of the world are "radar blind" (no coverage) and because controllers depend upon a transponder, which can be manually switched off for position information in these areas (unless someone in the cabin says something), it's possible for a jumbo jet like the Boeing 777 to be flying in a kind of radar limbo until it can be seen by radar again.

Why isn't the black box data being streamed constantly or at least in packets every few minutes to some computer somewhere watching for deviations from the expected course, thus alerting a controller to ask what's going on? Why is there a 2-hour limit on the voice data recorder? Much more than 2 hours could be recorded onto a medium-sized SD card, after all.

Another mystery is why these jets aren't fitted with a GPS. Our phone providers know where most of us are most of the time. Isn't it silly that the position, speed, and direction of a plane full of 240 or so people is a mystery given that your local police department can probably get a warrant to figure out where your phone was relative to the time and position of a crime?

Another topic was, why are there no cameras installed in cockpits? After all, in many locales, school and city bus drivers drive in a vehicle fitted with cameras and those cameras have proven useful time and time again in clarifying what happened. It was said that pilots object that cameras in the cockpit would be (and I quote) "an invasion of privacy." Now, what gives pilots an expectation of privacy in the first place?

I'm guessing it's just the inertia generated by the trajectory of the past: they haven't had cockpit cameras in the past so they don't want them in the future. It's hard not to ask, given their hesitancy, what goes on in the cockpits? We know that pilots take naps on long flights. That's probably good. Put the plane on autopilot with the flightpath plugged in and then rest, depending upon the many alarm systems built into these planes to alert them to a situation. 

Another advantage of having cockpit cameras would be in preserving the reputation of heroic or victimized pilots whose planes go down mysteriously. Had a camera been in the cockpit of flight 370, we'd know if there was an incursion into the cockpit of a terrorist or madman, we'd know if there was a fire, we'd know if the pilot or copilot went crazy. There wouldn't be all this speculation we have now, which has some wondering if it's a situation like Egyptair flight 999, where the copilot apparently took the plane down in an act of suicide.

Most of us have more high-tech electronics in our homes, pockets, purses, or even on our wrists than contemporary aircraft are fitted with.

Is this crazy or not?

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It's called the conceit of hindsight. It takes major events to happen in order to implement any real change. Even in controlled scientific experiments, there are many anomalies and unexplained phenomena. Now take a totally uncontrolled event in nature, like this plane, and it gets chaotic. It's human solipsism that makes us believe we can control and perfectly anticipate every little detail. 

The planes involved in 9/11 were flying with their transponders manually turned off and yet here, 12-1/2 years later, it's still possible for anyone in the cockpit (pilot, copilot, navigator, flight attendant, or passenger) to manually flip a switch and turn off the transponder. Remember, many of these smaller foreign airlines still allow passengers into the cockpit. This crew did allow a couple pretty hot Australian girls into the cockpit some months ago where there was some discussion of getting together for (use your imagination) once they landed. The girls declined.

Turning it on or off should not be in local control. It should turn on automatically as the plane leaves the airport and only be turned off upon a normal landing. In case of an impact of any sort, it should stay turned on. 

BTW, another thing I remember from the CNN discussions is that, when someone brought up the notion of some sort of catastrophic failure of the plane's electronics, it was mentioned that the essential electronics are redundant x8. In other words, if one data path goes offline, there are 7 more. In other words, it would would pretty much take the disintegration of the aircraft in flight to terminate all the redundant electrical paths. 

This crew did allow a couple pretty hot Australian girls into the cockpit some months ago where there was some discussion of getting together for (use your imagination) once they landed. The girls declined.

I thought of a couple of jokes but it would be in bad taste. Ah well. I don't think they will find that plane anyway. It's at the bottom of the ocean methinks. 

"I thought of a couple of jokes but it would be in bad taste."

There's nothing wrong with bad taste, at least it shows you have taste. :)

I've noticed that in the TV coverage, more and more people are asking questions like, "We were told decades ago that spy satellite have the ability to read license plates (which raises the separate question of why would someone mount a license plate facing the sky?), so why are stuck with images of debris that are, like, 5 or 10 pixels?

Now, one thing I can tell you from my career as a photographer, is that the more detail you want tends to force you to resolve on a smaller area. The most extreme example that comes to mind is the electron microscope, which gives us very high resolution images of very small areas. Just recently, I was looking at actual electron micrography of, believe it or not, viruses! Of course, if you take a picture in your living room, you can be sure there are billions (if not trillions) of viruses there, but by getting a larger picture, you lose the ability to resolve down to their level. Even a fly on the opposite wall is going to be little more than a black dot which, when enlarged, is just likely to be little more than an unrecognizable blob of a few pixels. I'm sure there are satellites which can take a much more detailed look at the debris if they know very precisely where to look. But then there's another problem, which is that material on the ocean simply doesn't hold still,

Also, the current search area is one which is sensitive between Pakistan and India. Any plane flying there should have been met by jets from both countries just to eyeball it. Flying with its transponder off should have made it triply suspicious. If this is the major search area, why is it that neither India nor Pakistan saw it. The answer could simply be job complacency and radar operators where were asleep at the switch. It was the middle of the night. 

One expert offered his conjecture that they had a lithium ion battery fire in the cargo compartment that flooded the plane, including the cockpit, with gases that overcame both the cockpit and the passenger area. That would explain the plane being put on autopilot for a southern route toward the nearest airport. It does not explain the transponder being manually taken offline.

Yet another conjecture is that a flash fire in the cockpit took out the pilots so quickly that they were unable to send an SOS, the transponder but left the autopilot running, turning Flight MH370 into a ghost plane.

One thing that tends to indicate that something sudden happened is that, apparently, none of the 240 or so people aboard switched on their cell phone to send out a personal SOS or say good-bye to loved ones. 

At this point given the information that is available and the information that is oddly missing I'm leaning in the same direction as Unseen, something bad nasty happened and took out the passengers and crew at the same time.

Well i guess Boeing-Boeing-gone really do not want to find their failures if it can be helped, it might impact their share price which would in turn hurt the executives fatbonus packages.

What brought that on? So far as I know, Boeing has been cooperating and helping. Besides, I've heard no one blame the aircraft itself. Prevailing theories: death wish (suicide) in the cockpit, terrorism, catastrophic event (fire, toxic fumes). I haven't heard one expert even speculate that there was something wrong with the plane. Besides, once it's sold, it's operated and maintained by the airline which I believe is Malaysian government-owned in this case. It's become obvious that the airline was lax in terms of security procedures and maybe this laxness extended to maintenance as well. Anyway, no one other than Judith van der Roos seems to be suggesting that Boeing bears much responsibility. There are more than 1,100 777's flying and the plane's safety record over 100's of thousands of trips is clearly exemplary. There have been 3 accidents involving the 777, two of them resolved (the third is the one we're talking about) and only one of those two involved a problem with the aircraft itself, and even there the problem was in the Rolls-Royce engines supplied to Boeing, a problem since resolved.

I gather you are one of these people who assumes (almost as a religious tenet) that whenever something bad happens, some evil corporation is either to blame or is engaging in a cover up of some sort. The press in the US would love a scandal to increase their own corporate profits and the fact there's no mention of even a suspicion of something wrong with the aircraft tells me there's no smoke and hence no fire. At least not yet.

We don't have these nice things for the same reason the Exxon Valdez turned off their radar in ice-burg infested water. The owners of these planes don't want to pay for it. It wouldn't be all that expensive, but it would mean a chunk out of their profit. That's why domestic pilots like Captain "Sully" Sullenberger make at or slightly above minimum wage. It all comes back to the money.

Most of the domestic airlines are on the edge of bankruptcy. Modifying a fleet of planes is expensive for several reasons. First, there's the cost of the modifications and then the planes would have to be taken out of rotation for a while. For this reason, it can't be justified unless all of their competitors have to do it as well, adjusting their ticket prices accordingly because ultimately the passengers pay for everything. I don't care if you're an airline or a hot dog stand, you can only be altruistic if you are operating in the black. Not for long, anyway.

I don't have a problem with losing a plane now and then, it ain't like finding every scrap of metal is gonna end world hunger or make cars safer.

It could make flying safer.


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