Qatar Airways group CEO Akbar Al Baker made an astonishing disclosure to a media conference this week about live streaming data from flight recorders, which no one seems to have picked up on for its implications for new tech high efficiency air traffic control systems.

This is how it began. Speaking at the official welcome to Qatar’s Doha hub of its, and the world’s, first Airbus A350, Al Baker said the airline was already testing such live streaming tech from ‘a leading supplier’.

The data was being continually received at an operations base.

Al Baker told ATW that Qatar wants to be the first airline to introduce full-time, pilot-independent aircraft systems monitoring and reporting across its fleet, and would also be pushing for industry-wide support through its role as an IATA board member.

But whoa. Such monitoring, if it was universally adopted, would generate all the real time data needed to feed a new tech air traffic control system that could safely allow three or more times as many aircraft to use existing air space in a given interval, as well as shorten flight times by eliminating most if not all circuitous routings.

Searching for a search starting point, the problem with recent air disasters

Selling constant positional and flight data systems and rules to the world’s airlines isn’t exactly a universally popular notion. Qatar Airways’ much bigger ME neighbor, Dubai based Emirates, has been scathing about the idea of making it pay for what it sees as an overreaction to a major Malaysia Airlines problem.

Emirates president and CEO, Tim Clark, publicly doesn’t believe the official MH370 narrative, wants suppressed information released about the flight, and believes the 777-200ER that went missing on 8 March last year was under pilot control until the very end.

Clark may well have been briefed on intelligence about that flight that presumably the Australian government has also come across, and to its dismay, since no-one likes to be taken for a fool.

But saving quite staggering amounts of money by exploiting future tech that straightens out the air routes, improves fleet utilization and thus maintenance costs, and saves on fuel, even if it stays as cheap as it currently is, would be another matter altogether.

Al Baker is talking about making airlines more viable, rather than having an instant fix on a crash site.

This is where the story is relevant at two levels, because the other level is about the possibility that individual carrier, such as Qatar Airways, will unilaterally install their own live streaming ‘black box data’ systems, no doubt anticipating that such systems will inevitably speed next generation air navigation systems which have been much talked about since the 1990s with very little real large scale progress to report.

Many airlines use in flight data reporting systems today for monitoring a range of parameters useful for maintenance planning as well as flight following across long routes.  Even MH370 was equipped with a fairly rudimentary engine data reporting system, which the airline hadn’t activated (read, paid for) but the default standby signals from it have, controversially, allowed conclusions to be made that the jet flew south into the vastness of the Indian Ocean until its fuel ran out.

Live streaming of all the data currently recorded at the cockpit voice level and across dozens of performance parameters would inevitably merge with collection of ‘flight following’ data and other maintenance alerting or monitoring functions, which many carriers see as generating operational savings today.

IATA set up an Aircraft Tracking Task Force (ATTF) following the disappearance of MH370. Last month the ATTF issued a report with non-mandatory recommendations to improve continuous tracking of airliners. It seems to have been best received in some quarters for its slow motion approach to getting anything agreed upon at a binding level.

Both major Australian flag carriers are cautiously supportive of a new tech approach to keeping track of airliners, and Qantas, which flies long distances across remote oceanic routes, already ‘flight follows’ each jet intensively so that weather, medical or operational diversions can be efficiently managed on services where alternative airports can take hours to reach when things go wrong.

As to the AirAsia flight 8501 tragedy, or Air France 447 in 2009, the airlines and safety agencies would have known a great deal about their causes within hours of them disappearing had they been using live streaming of flight recorder data.

However the time taken for rescue or recovery shipping augmented by ship based helicopters to reach the scene of those accidents wouldn’t have been reduced, and since the position of AF447 on surface impact was known with considerable precision,  the problems of victim retrieval caused by winds, currents and wave conditions would have still been present.

The immediate benefit of the technology Qatar Airways is already testing is that while recovery might have taken almost as long, the safety lessons and insights into each accident could have been learned and acted upon in short order.

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