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SCIENCE IN THE NEWS - Is There A Better Way to Track Passenger Planes?

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Is There A Better Way to Track Passenger Planes?
Is There A Better Way to Track Passenger Planes?

Airline industry leaders and regulators want to improve airplane safety. They want companies to develop better, more dependable devices that can follow planes as they fly.

Searchers are still looking for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. It disappeared over the Indian Ocean more than ten months ago. Nothing has been found. AirAsia Flight 8501 crashed into the Java Sea late last month. Voice and data recorders were found earlier this month. The search for all other parts of the airplane continues.

Air France Flight 447 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009. It took almost two years to find the flight recorders from the plane. Flight recorders store information about an airplane. They are often called "black boxes."

Michael Huerta is the administrator of the United States Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA. He says airplane crashes and disappearances are "extremely rare." But he and other aviation regulators are suggesting the airline industry make changes. The International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO, wants to create global airplane tracking standards. The organization is considering several possibilities.

One includes technology that cannot be disabled by anyone traveling on a plane. Another proposal is for the aircraft to report its location by satellite every fifteen minutes rather than every hour.

In some places, especially over oceans and in remote areas, there are times when radio transmissions from planes cannot be heard. The satellite company Inmarsat is offering to provide satellite reporting services to ICAO at no cost if the company's proposal is chosen.

Also, aviation officials in the United States have ordered plane manufacturers to replace black boxes that have batteries that operate for 30 days with batteries that work for 90 days. Airlines based in the United States will have these new black boxes in all of their planes by 2020.

Airplane manufacturer Airbus wants to put special flight recorders on some of its planes. These recorders would be ejected, or expelled, in the case of an accident. The company is negotiating with the European Aviation Safety Agency about placing the ejectable flight recorders on its two largest planes -- the A380 and the new A350.

If the negotiations are successful, Airbus would become the first commercial plane manufacturer to use the technology. They have been used for many years in military planes. After they are ejected, they transmit a call for help.

The ejectable recorders combine voice and information recordings. They record conversations between pilots and all other sounds made in the cockpit -- the area in a plane where pilots sit. And they record technical information such as air speed, engine performance and cabin pressure.

None of the new technology would prevent crashes. But they will help find downed planes more quickly. This might bring comfort to the family members of those who died.

Richard Aboulafia is an air travel expert with the Teal Group. He says more work should be done on preventing crashes. He says international agencies should share information about passengers and crew members.

"We need better information-sharing across borders. We need better human intelligence on who's on the passenger manifest and better sharing about that. We need better intelligence on crew personnel."

ICAO is expected to discuss the proposal to record a plane's location every 15 minutes at its planned meeting in Montreal, Canada, next month. The group has 191 member states. Not all of them put the group's standards in place.

I'm Jonathan Evans.

VOA Correspondent Carolyn Persutti reported this story from Washington. We also used information from The Financial Times and the Reuters news agency. Jonathan Evans wrote the story for VOA Learning English. Christopher Cruise was the editor.

----------------

Words in This Story

administrator n. a person whose job is to manage a company, school or other organization

disable(d)v. to cause (something) to be unable to work in the normal way

proposaln. something, such as a plan or suggestion, that is presented to a person or group of people to consider

transmissionn. something, such as a message or broadcast, that is transmitted to a radio or television

ejectv. to push something out

manifestn. a document listing the cargo, passengers and crew of a ship, aircraft or vehicle

Do you support these proposed changes? Are there other changes that you believe could make it easier to track airplanes? If so, what are they? Do you believe crashes can be prevented with better information about the passengers and crew members? We want to hear from you. Write to us in the comments section.

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