Weeks of hunting for the flight data and voice recorders from EgyptAir Flight 804 have prompted renewed calls to update the way airplanes gather and transmit information. Advocates want to move past an aging black-box system that was introduced in the 1960s—decades before real-time data streaming became a ubiquitous part of life.
Governments, airlines and pilots have all resisted changes. Airlines argue that it would cost too much, and pilots say streaming could be an invasion of their privacy. Since planes cross borders, aviation officials from around the world need to agree on new technology.
But experts believe changes are years or even decades overdue and that recent crashes have made that painfully clear. The hunt for black boxes is a race against time, since batteries for their locator beacons last only 30 days. After that, flight data and voice recorders fall silent, making any efforts to find them hugely difficult, especially when planes fall to the bottom of the ocean, as is likely the case with the EgyptAir flight. Despite an international hunt, the black boxes are still missing from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which vanished between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing in March 2014.
That such mysteries persist in a connected world can seem baffling. Indeed, the aftermath of a 2009 Air France crash—when it took nearly two years to recover the black boxes—pushed some governments to suggest several changes. These included designing data recorders to eject automatically in a crash, float on the ocean surface and transmit data from locator beacons at lower frequencies, allowing the sound to be detected from farther away.
Change will come slowly. The European Aviation Safety Agency has issued new regulations requiring black-box batteries to last 90 days, but that rule won’t go into effect until 2019 and will affect planes operating out of Europe. In March, the U.N. agency in charge of air travel issued new regulations that will roll out between now and 2021. They will require planes to transmit their location once a minute in distress circumstances and to extend the voice recordings from the cockpit to 25 hours. Black boxes currently record only the last two hours of the flight—frustrating efforts to trace events that may have started earlier.