September 14, 2003
Recommendation to improve plane's recorders years behind schedule
HALIFAX (CP) -- Regulators are making so little progress on a key safety recommendation from the Swissair investigation that they won't likely meet a proposed deadline for long-awaited improvements to cockpit voice recorders.
The Transportation Safety Board, which led the probe into the 1998 crash of Swissair Flight 111, issued a recommendation in 1999 urging regulators to increase the length of time the black boxes record.
But four years later, the Federal Aviation Administration -- the world's most powerful regulator -- still hasn't ordered aircraft manufacturers to make the change.
"The recommendation stated that as of Jan. 1, 2005, that work be completed, but it looks like that date might not be met," Vic Gerden, who spent more than four years investigating the accident for the safety board, said in an interview from his Winnipeg office.
"You know the amount of time that sort of thing takes, so if the rule isn't promulgated by a certain time you know they won't meet the 2005 time frame."
The safety board recommended that cockpit voice recorders, which now capture the last half-hour of a flight, be upgraded to contain two hours. It also said the recorders, which contain vital insight into the sequence of events prior to a crash, should have independent power supplies.
The board said manufacturers should retrofit their planes by January 2005 with recorders that have a capacity of two hours. Newly manufactured planes would also have to be equipped with the expanded recorders.
The TSB made the recommendation because the voice recorder and flight data recorder on Flight 111 stopped six minutes before the plane struck the water, shattering into a million pieces and leaving investigators without vital sources of information.
The board's recommendations were accepted by its American equivalent and sent to the FAA, which said it would order a notice to the public requesting comment on the proposed change by the end of the summer of 1999.
It then delayed the action, claiming it was busy with other matters and saying it would have the notice ready by March 2000.
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board pressed the FAA to move on the action, but was met with delays.
"The safety board considers issues related to the vehicle recorders as critically important to transportation safety," says an NTSB progress report from 2001.
"The board regards it as unacceptable that little progress has been made in the two years since these recommendations were issued.
"The board is skeptical that the dates for final action can be met."
Alison Duquette, spokeswoman for the FAA, would only say that the notice is being developed and that it wasn't known if the deadline would be met.
But people in the industry are doubtful that aircraft manufacturers will be able to have the costly work done by the 2005 deadline even if the powerful body issued the notice today.
"There's a huge fleet out there that has to have the retrofit done," said Liz Verdier, spokeswoman for Boeing in Seattle, adding that the manufacturer has already started putting the extended voice recorders on its new planes.
"How much are we going to miss (the deadline)? I don't know."
Transport Canada, which sets regulations in this country, has moved forward with the requirements for new aircraft but is also still working on a notice for the retrofit.
In its final report into the crash, the TSB said that Transport Canada "intends to harmonize its actions with those of the FAA" and that could mean the Canadian agency "will also not meet its commitment to implement the required changes in a timely fashion."
Francois Asselin of Transport Canada would only say the notice is under development and that it wasn't known when it would be ready.
In both Canada and the States, the regulatory agencies send out notices of the changes. They receive responses from the public, review them and then develop a final rule -- a process that can take years.
Gerden said the Transportation Safety Board doesn't normally issue deadlines, but "we felt that date was reasonable to use as a target and we hoped it would inspire the regulators to achieve a particular date."
I wish I could say I'm surprised to hear that. Can't speak for the TSB but I doubt they are either...
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