Erasure of cockpit recording hampers investigation into Boeing 737 Max 9

Erasure of cockpit recording hampers investigation into Boeing 737 Max 9

Officials investigating why a panel of a Boeing 737 Max 9 flew open during an Alaska Airlines flight last week say they are struggling to piece together exactly what happened because that the plane’s cockpit voice recorder crashed before it could be recovered.

This is not a new problem. The National Transportation Safety Board, which is leading the investigation, has for years recommended that recorders be programmed to capture up to 25 hours of audio before automatically resetting, but the Federal Aviation Administration has been reluctant to impose restrictions. longer recordings.

The FAA last month offered 25-hour recorders on new packages, but argued that adding them to the existing fleet of U.S. packages would be too costly. Additionally, a pilots union opposed the adoption of 25-hour recordings unless Congress put in place protections prohibiting their release to the public.

Safety committee Chairwoman Jennifer Homendy said agency investigators have conducted 10 investigations since 2018 in which the cockpit voice recorder was overwritten, with critical recordings lost forever. Voice recorders are among the key pieces of evidence that investigators use to piece together the events leading up to accidents and try to establish the cause.

Ms. Homendy said a recording of the Alaska Airlines flight would have contained a lot of important information, including the noise the crew described hearing shortly after the plane took off Friday from Portland, Oregon. She said the recording would have allowed investigators to hear communications between crew members during the incident and identify any communication issues, including any audible alerts in the cockpit.

“There is so much information we can get from the CVR that is not limited to communication between the flight crew,” Ms Homendy said. “This is an essential piece of evidence to improve safety. Without it, we piece together the interview material and lose a lot.

Flight crew members told federal investigators they had been so focused on going through their emergency checklist, communicating with air traffic control and landing the plane that they had not heard any alerts. Federal investigators have not suggested the pilots or flight crew made any mistakes.

“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 some sort of failure of some sort of oral alert, we wouldn’t be informed about it.”

Alaska Airlines said in a statement Wednesday that due to the active investigation, it could not explain why audio from the cockpit recorder was not recovered in time. But the airline added that it welcomed the FAA’s proposal to extend the check-in period.

“We support this effort, which would bring the U.S. airline industry into greater compliance with international regulations,” the airline said.

The United States lagged behind much of the world in requiring the use of longer voice recordings in commercial plans. In 2016, the International Civil Aviation Organization, an arm of the United Nations, adopted a standard calling for recorders capable of capturing the last 25 hours of audio on all new planes starting in 2021. The mandate 25 hours from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency came into force in January 2021 for the new regimes.

Cockpit voice recordings begin the moment pilots start a plane. This allows the recording to capture pilots’ pre-flight checks, passenger boarding and other activities as the crew prepares for takeoff.

The two-hour limit means the recorder can be quickly overwritten even on short flights, especially if there are delays on the runway. Once the two-hour limit is reached, recording will automatically start again.

The recorders are designed to automatically shut off in the event of an accident, but they do not shut off during incidents like the Alaska Airlines 737 Max 9. In such cases, someone should remove a circuit breaker in the aircraft to prevent the aircraft from restarting again. This did not happen in this case.

The safety committee began to recommend increasing the recording duration after a heartbreaking 2017 incident at San Francisco International Airport when an Air Canada plane nearly landed on a 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 air disasters in history, but federal investigators still have no idea what was happening in the cockpit because the recording automatically restarted before it could be recovered.

Robert Sumwalt, who was then chairman of the safety committee, said records of major aviation incidents could give federal investigators a more complete picture of what happened and how to prevent it from happening again .

“It gives you almost direct insight into the conversations and noises happening in the cockpit,” 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 did not go so far as to require commercial airlines to install these recorders on all planes, as the recommended the NTSB.

The FAA estimated that upgrading each plane would cost $741 million. Installing the new recorders only on the new plans would cost $196 million.

“Our proposed rule aligns with regulations established 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 trump any financial concerns. She also emphasized that the lasting impact of a catastrophic plane crash would be far greater than the immediate cost of improved safety that would be borne by airlines and, ultimately, travelers.

“The cost would be substantial, not only in financial terms but also in terms of the reputation of the company, in terms of the reputation of the manufacturer, its suppliers and everyone else involved, and in terms of loss of public confidence in the American aviation system.” Ms. Homendy said. “That’s what would be lost immediately.”

Congress also took note of the matter. Bills pending in the House and Senate to reauthorize the FAA would extend check-in time to 25 hours across the board within four years.

Since the 2017 San Francisco incident, Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, a California Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has said he supports the security office’s recommendation for voice recorders because data Reviews were often lost because investigators couldn’t retrieve them quickly enough.

“The move to 25-hour cockpit voice recorders is a critical part of advancing air transportation safety that has already been adopted as an international standard,” said Mr. DeSaulnier.

But the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents pilots for Alaska, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and other airlines, has long opposed the adoption of a 25-hour voice recorder, citing confidentiality issues. In a statement, the union said that while voice and flight data recorders provided crucial information, the group wanted lawmakers to ensure investigators only used those recordings to improve the aviation system.

Federal law prohibits the security office from releasing copies of cockpit voice recorders under freedom of information laws. But the law doesn’t stop the FAA or airlines from releasing copies.

“Unfortunately, the legal statute that protects the confidentiality of the cockpit voice recorder only applies to the NTSB,” the statement said. “In addition to the NTSB, the protections provided by this law must be strengthened and applied to airlines as well as the FAA before considering extending its duration.”

Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, said that despite misgivings from the pilots’ union, he and other members of Congress plan to advance legislation to increase check-in time.

“Without access to cockpit voice recordings, investigators are missing critical information about any troubling incident, whether a near miss, equipment failure, or the recent Alaska Airlines flight” , Mr. Cruz said in an interview.

Niraj Chokshi reports contributed.

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David B.Otero

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