Authorities investigating why a panel of a Boeing 737 Max 9 opened during an Alaska Airlines flight last week say they are struggling to piece together exactly what happened as the plane’s cockpit voice recorder recorded It was overwritten before it could be recovered.
This is not a new problem. The National Transportation Safety Board, which is leading the investigation, has recommended for years that recorders be programmed to capture up to 25 hours of audio before automatically resetting, but the Federal Aviation Administration has moved to mandate longer recordings. Has been reluctant to.
The FAA last month proposed 25-hour recorders on new planes, but argued that adding them to the existing fleet of US planes would be too expensive. Additionally, a pilots’ union has opposed the move to release 25-hour recordings unless Congress enacts protections that would prohibit their release to the public.
Safety board Chairwoman Jennifer Homendy said agency investigators have conducted 10 investigations since 2018 involving scribbles on cockpit voice recorders, in which critical recordings were lost forever. Voice recorders are one of the key pieces of evidence that investigators use to reconstruct the events that led to accidents as they work to establish cause.
Ms. Homendy said the recording of the Alaska Airlines flight would contain a lot of important information, including the explosion that the crew heard shortly after the plane took off from Portland, Oregon, on Friday. He said the recording would help investigators. Listen to communications between the crew during the incident and identify any communication problems, including any audible alerts in the cockpit.
“There is so much information we can get from CVRs that goes beyond communication between flight crew,” Ms Homendy said. “This is an important piece of evidence to improve safety. Without it, we’re piecing together things from interviews and missing a lot.
Flight crew members told federal investigators that they were so focused on completing their emergency checklist, communicating with air traffic control, and getting the plane on the ground that they did not hear any alerts. Federal investigators have not said whether the pilots or the flight crew made any errors.
“So now this is what they don’t remember, and we have no evidence that this was happening,” Ms. Homendy said. “So if there was any kind of failure to give any kind of verbal warning, we wouldn’t have known about it.”
Alaska Airlines said in a statement Wednesday that due to the active investigation, it could not comment on why the audio from the cockpit recorder was not recovered in a timely manner. But the airline said it welcomed the FAA’s proposal to extend the recording time.
“We support this effort, which will bring the U.S. airline industry into line with international regulations,” the airline said.
The United States lagged behind most of the world in requiring the use of long voice recordings in commercial aircraft. In 2016, the International Civil Aviation Organization, a branch of the United Nations, adopted a standard calling for recorders capable of capturing the past 25 hours of audio on all new aircraft starting in 2021. The European Union Aviation Safety Agency’s 25-hour mandate will go into effect in January 2021 for new aircraft.
Cockpit voice recording begins as soon as the pilot starts the aircraft. This enables recording to capture pilots’ pre-flight checks, passenger boarding and other activities as the crew prepares for takeoff.
The two-hour limit means that even on short flights the recorder can be quickly overwritten, especially if there are any delays on the runway. Once the two-hour limit is reached, recording starts automatically.
The recorders are designed to automatically shut off if a crash occurs, but they do not stop in incidents like the one with Alaska Airlines’ 737 Max 9. In such cases, one must remove the circuit breaker on the plane to stop the device from restarting. This did not happen in this case.
After this the safety board started recommending increasing the recording time A tragic incident at San Francisco International Airport in 2017 When an Air Canada plane landed almost on the taxiway instead of a nearby runway. Four planes loaded with passengers were waiting on the taxiway. The incident could have been one of the worst aviation disasters in history, but federal investigators still don’t know what was going on in the cockpit because the recording started automatically before it could be recovered.
Robert Sumwalt, who was chairman of the safety board at the time, said that recording major aviation incidents could give federal investigators a complete picture of what happened and how to prevent it from happening again.
“It gives you a first-hand account of what conversations are happening in the cockpit and what sounds are coming through,” he said. “People may think they remember things clearly, but sometimes memory fails us.”
The FAA proposed a rule in December that would require new planes to be equipped with 25-hour voice recorders, but it did not mandate that commercial airlines install recorders on all planes, as the NTSB has recommended.
The FAA estimates that upgrading each aircraft will cost $741 million. Just installing the new recorders on new planes would cost $196 million.
“Our proposed rule is consistent with rules set by the International Civil Aviation Organization and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency,” the agency said in a statement.
Ms Homendy said saving lives should outweigh any financial concerns. He also pointed out that the lasting impact of a catastrophic plane crash would far outweigh the immediate costs of safety upgrades that would be borne by airlines and ultimately passengers.
“The cost will be substantial, not only in terms of finances, but in terms of the reputation of the company, in terms of the reputation of the manufacturer and suppliers and everyone else, and in terms of the cost to public confidence in the American aviation system. ,” Ms. Homendy said. “That will be lost immediately.”
Congress has also taken cognizance of this issue. Bills pending in the House and Senate to reauthorize the FAA would expand the recording period on all aircraft to 25 hours within four years.
Since the incident in San Francisco in 2017, Representative Mark DeSaulnier, a California Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he supports the security board’s recommendation on voice recorders because critical data was often lost because investigators were unable to recover it quickly. Couldn’t do it.
“Moving to a 25-hour cockpit voice recorder is an essential component of advancing air travel safety that has already been adopted as an international standard,” Mr Desaulniers said.
But the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents pilots for Alaska, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and other companies, has long opposed the move to 25-hour voice recorders, citing privacy concerns. In a statement, the union said that while voice and flight data recorders provide important information, the group wants lawmakers to ensure that investigators use the recordings only to improve the aviation system.
Federal law prevents the safety board from releasing copies of the cockpit voice recorder under freedom of information laws. But the law doesn’t prevent the FAA or airlines from releasing copies.
“Unfortunately, the statute protecting the confidentiality of cockpit voice recorders only applies to the NTSB,” the statement said. “In addition to the NTSB, there is a need to strengthen the protections in that statute and enforce it on the airlines as well as the FAA before considering an extension.”
Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz said that despite opposition from the pilots union, he and other members of Congress planned to pursue legislation to extend the recording time.
Mr. Cruz said in an interview, “Without access to cockpit voice recordings, investigators do not have the information they need about any troubling incident, whether it be a near miss, equipment failure or the recent Alaska Airlines crash.” Let’s take flight.”
-Neeraj Choksi Contributed to the reporting.