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How a data revolution can solve plane mysteries

A waiter walks past a mural of Flight

A waiter walks past a mural of Flight MH370 in Shah Alam, Malaysia, Feb. 23, 2016. Credit: AP

When Air France Flight 447 crashed in the Atlantic in 2009, it took two years and more than $25 million before investigators found it. Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared in 2014 and still hasn’t turned up. EgyptAir 804, lost on May 19, is somewhere on the bottom of the Mediterranean, but until investigators can dredge up its "black box," they won’t know why it went down.

All these incidents raise the same question: In an age of ubiquitous surveillance and digital tracking, how is it possible that planes don’t transmit their cockpit data in real time?

After Flight 370 disappeared, the aviation industry drafted a policy requiring that airlines track a plane’s position every 15 minutes. But because the industry couldn’t agree on what technology to use or how, the policy is vague, contentious and won’t take effect until 2021 — seven years after Flight 370’s disappearance.

In a way, however, it’s also beside the point.

For years, airlines claimed that the cost of sending and storing cockpit data would be prohibitive, especially given that crashes are so rare. But now, with new satellites and other technology turbocharging inflight internet, that argument is quickly faltering. Over the past two years, international passengers like me have been able to take it for granted that we can stay connected at 35,000 feet. In-flight credit card transactions are routine. Next-generation WiFi is enabling even high-bandwidth applications, such as gaming, on board.

But broadband pipes can do more than simply transmit entertainment. They can also send information back to the ground, which is where things get really interesting. Honeywell Aerospace envisions a near future in which planes stream data about their wings, brakes and other components, allowing maintenance issues to be addressed on board. Boeing’s Airplane Health Management system is already solving problems mid-flight: When one crew detected an engine temperature problem, the company says, they "began an air turnback, but after AHM interrogated the central maintenance computer and investigated the airplane’s history, the operator determined that the flight could continue."

As such technology improves, a lot of new possibilities should open up. For starters, airlines should be able to reduce delays and cancellations, operate more efficiently, and cut costs by studying how planes perform on different routes and under different conditions.

They should also be able to stream black-box data. Last year, Qatar Airlines announced that it would do just that. Its system, which uses satellite broadband, sends information to a flight control center every five seconds. Canada’s FLYHT Aerospace says it installed 400 of its $100,000 streaming black boxes for about 50 customers. Its system only activates when software detects a problem with a plane, thereby saving bandwidth.

So far, regulators haven’t issued any rules on how to manage streamed black-box data. And they should avoid doing so in a way that stalls out further innovation. But the International Civil Aviation Organization — a UN agency that acts as a de facto global regulator — should consider requiring satellite broadband for all new airplanes. It should also be thinking about security measures, such as how best to segregate critical cockpit data from cabin data, such as entertainment. And a clear protocol for who has access to streamed black-box data after a crash should be defined.

Meanwhile, there’s a data revolution happening in the skies. It should make flying safer, faster and more predictable for everyone. More important, it should ensure no plane ever disappears again.

Adam Minter is based in Asia, where he covers politics, culture, business and junk.