At a rare safety summit held by the Federal Aviation Administration in Virginia on Wednesday, the chair of the government agency investigating a string of near-collisions in recent months noted that all the incidents had one thing in common.
In every instance, the cockpit voice recording (CVR) in the plane’s so-called “black box” had been overwritten, making it much more difficult for investigators to do their job.
“Right now, CVRs only need to record two hours of audio before they’re overwritten,” says Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, noting that her agency has been recommending that the United States adopt a 25-hour standard for the past five years.
“This was the recommendation we made back in 2018 based on an almost-tragic near-miss,” she says, referring to an incident at San Francisco International Airport where an Air Canada plane came within 60 feet of four aircraft waiting to take off. “So we didn’t end up with a tragedy that very nearly could have resulted in 1,000 people.”
“Europe has mandated 25-hour CVRs in new aircraft for over a year, and we should do the same,” Homendy adds. “I don’t understand why it’s so controversial.”
When investigating any incident, NTSB investigators want to listen to the audio from the cockpit to try to glean clues from verbal communication or sounds, such as mechanical noises or alarms that might be overheard. But too often that audio is not preserved for investigators, making it much harder to get to the bottom of what happened. The NTSB argues that holding onto data for 25 hours gives investigators a much better chance of salvaging the most pertinent information. According to Homendy, the FAA has historically pushed back on this change. “Cost has come up,” she says.
“There is nothing preventing the industry from upgrading their cockpit voice recorders,” the FAA said in a statement to Forbes. “The FAA is working on a rule to require it.” But the agency declined to answer Forbes’s questions regarding a possible timetable.
“These recent incidents must serve as a wake-up call before something more catastrophic occurs.”
Airlines for America (or A4A), an industry lobby group representing major North American airlines, says it backs the NTSB’s recommendation, at least in theory. “A4A is supportive of transitioning from 2-hour CVRs to 25-hour CVRs in coordination with its federal partners and other industry stakeholders,” the organization said in a statement to Forbes.
Like the FAA, the airline lobby group was non-committal regarding timing. “There are many details and considerations that need to be addressed with such proposals, and carriers are committed to working through those issues as legislative proposals are considered,” concludes A4A’s statement.
“What else has to be done?” Homendy asks of the dawdling. “It’s been implemented all across Europe, and other countries outside of Europe have also implemented it. And [the International Civil Aviation Organization] has actually recommended 25 hours.”
One group currently opposed to changing the CVR regulations are pilots, according to several industry sources who requested anonymity. “Voice and flight data recorders become critically important in the event of a catastrophic accident, which fortunately is very rare in U.S. aviation,” says Captain Jason Ambrosi, president of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), whose 67,000 members make up the largest pilot union in the country. “Current law requires the NTSB to protect the privacy of the data contained on the flight deck voice recordings, but does not prevent airlines or others from disclosing that information and additional safeguards need to be put into place to keep them from doing so.”
“The pilot community does have concerns about whether the information could be publicly released,” acknowledges Homendy. “I will tell you, in our investigations, none of that has ever occurred.”
For Homendy, the lack of action from the FAA is particularly frustrating, given her recollection of a similar industry forum in 2017. “On runway incursions, the FAA, industry and labor all made wonderful presentations,” she says. “We came out of that forum with everyone calling for better data and implementation of technology that would prevent runway incursions. So where are we six years later?”
“What’s happened is that we have the data,” she continues, answering her own question. “There are about roughly 1,500 to 1,700 runway incursions annually. We know the vast majority of those are low to no risk, but there are some that are risky.”
Among the six runway incursions currently under investigation from earlier this year is a near-miss at Austin Airport in early February, when two planes came within 100 feet of each other, “endangering the lives of 131 people on board two aircraft,” says Homendy. Later in February, she added, two planes came within 300 feet of each other at Hollywood Burbank Airport.
“These recent incidents must serve as a wake-up call for every single one of us before something more catastrophic occurs before lives are lost,” Homendy says. “Now, I often hear that in 10 of the last 12 years there have been no airline passenger fatalities. That’s true, but the absence of a fatality or an accident doesn’t mean the presence of safety. There’s always more we can do to improve safety and we can’t forget that.”
“What keeps me up at night is the next family that I have to talk to when we go on scene to investigate an accident,” she says. “It’s also the investigators that I talk with on scene who say, ‘We’ve seen this before. We’ve issued recommendations on this. They haven’t been acted upon those recommendations that could have prevented this.’”