Tougher Black Boxes Mandated for Commercial Aircraft

One of the first questions asked after a commercial airline crash is whether the plane's "black boxes" have been recovered intact, preserving cockpit conversations and flight data before the crash for crash investigators. The Federal Aviation Administration published a final rule March 7 to improve the recorders -- basing it on recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board after several crashes, including EgyptAir flight 990 in the ocean off Nantucket, Mass., on Oct. 31, 1999, and ValuJet Airlines flight 592 in the Florida Everglades on May 11, 1996 -- in airplanes and helicopters with 10 or more seats. Soon, their voice recorders must capture the last two hours of cockpit audio instead of the current 15-30 minutes and must have an independent backup power source to allow continued recording for 9-11 minutes if all aircraft power sources are lost or interrupted. Data recorders must capture the last 25 hours of recorded information.

FAA said airplanes (but not helicopters) operating under Parts 121, 125, or 135 of its regulations must retrofit some equipment by March 7, 2012. The rule requires the upgrades to be installed on all newly built aircraft and helicopters after March 7, 2010. Some stakeholders opposed the changes in part or in their entirety, and the Air Line Pilots Association said the rule should have contained privacy protections for crew members whose conversations are recorded, according to the rule.

"Because this is the safest period in aviation history, we now have to be able to analyze each accident in greater detail," said Robert Sturgell, FAA's acting administrator. "These enhancements will give us more information about the causes of accidents and find ways to avoid them in the future."

The rule (www.faa.gov/regulations_policies/rulemaking/recently_published/media/23532.DOC) says voice recorders also must use solid state technology instead of magnetic tape, which is vulnerable to damage and loss of reliability, and it formalizes current FAA policy that voice and data recorders must be housed in separate units (excluding helicopters) such that no single electrical failure can disable them.

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