An Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 MAX 9 jet made headlines on Friday when it lost a panel mid-flight, sparking concerns over safety and renewing calls for longer in-flight recordings. The incident, which occurred shortly after takeoff, was quickly brought under control by the experienced pilots.
However, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) chair Jennifer Homendy announced on Sunday that the cockpit voice recorder data on the flight was overwritten due to the recording not being retrieved within two hours – the time when the recording restarts, erasing previous data. This raised concerns about the length of cockpit recordings and the need for longer recording times to prevent critical data from being lost.
Currently, the U.S. requires cockpit voice recorders to log two hours of data, while Europe requires 25 hours for planes manufactured after 2021. The issue of longer recording times has been a topic of discussion for several years but gained more attention after the disappearance of a Malaysian jet in 2014. Flight MH370 has never been found, but the incident increased efforts to monitor the longest modern flights and recap earlier flights where necessary.
In 2016, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) recommended a 25-hour recording time for planes manufactured from 2021, in line with the existing period used for keeping flight data. However, the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) only proposed extending the recording time for new aircraft, in line with European policy. This sparked a debate between the NTSB and FAA, with the former calling for all aircraft to be retrofitted with 25-hour recorders, not just new planes.
Homendy emphasized the importance of data from the cockpit voice recorder in investigations and improving aviation safety. "If that communication is not recorded, that is unfortunately a loss for us and a loss for the FAA and a loss for safety because that information is key not just for our investigation but for improving aviation safety," she said.
The NTSB has been vocal in their calls for longer recording times, with the agency conducting 10 investigations since 2018 where crucial data was overwritten due to the current two-hour limit. Several pilot groups have opposed longer recordings, citing concerns about privacy and potential misuse of the recordings.
The debate over longer recording times has gained urgency in light of a series of near misses and other incidents that have raised concerns about air safety. Homendy called on Congress to take action in the FAA reauthorization bill to ensure the proposed rule for longer recording times is adopted.
The issue has gained even more attention as Japanese media reported the recovery of the voice recorder from a Japan Airlines Airbus A350 that collided with a Japanese Coastguard plane last week. This incident, along with others, has led to calls for not only longer voice recordings but also video recordings in the cockpit. However, pilot groups strongly oppose the use of cockpit cameras, citing concerns about personal privacy and potential courtroom use.
Flight recorders, or "black boxes," are mandatory in the aviation industry and are designed to preserve valuable data that can help prevent future accidents. They have undergone major technological advancements, including the use of computer chips inside "crash-survivable" containers. However, critics say the capacity for recordings remains limited compared to modern electronic devices.
Historians credit Australian scientist David Warren with inventing the concept of flight recorders in the 1950s. While they have evolved over time, the purpose of these recorders remains the same - to gather critical information and aid in safety improvements. The industry has already phased out old technology and continues to seek ways to enhance the capabilities of flight recorders to better protect the safety of passengers and crew.