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On the anniversary of 9/11 and mystery around MH370 remains unsolved, Mariam Sharp considers whether black box data held in the cloud could improve customer service

Today is the 13th anniversary of September 11, a day that shook the world and the entire travel industry to its very core. Today too, in New York, at EyeforTravel’s Travel Distribution Summit North America Dean Dacko, Senior Vice President Marketing for Malaysia Airlines will be sharing his insights into how organisation managed a very different but equally complex disaster operation.

Given the recent tragic airline fatalities of two Malaysia Airlines flights, that of Taiwanese TransAsia Airways and SwiftAir-operated Air Algerie, it may feel that crises like this happen often. In fact, airplane fatalities are statistically rare. When they do happen, however, they are often fatal and people want answers as to why their loved ones died. Then investigators turn to the airplane’s cockpit voice recorder (CVR) and, flight data recorder (FDR) for answers.

The black box holds critical data in two main ways. Firstly voice recordings of the flight crew’s microphones and earphones. Secondly the black box also tracks the aircrafts performance based on the data fed to it from about 80 sensors all over the plane. This includes fuel usage, altitude, airspeed, vertical accelerations, throttle, and flight control positions, wing flap movement, engine performance, and cabin temperature and pressure etc. Some commercial airlines additionally record video and audio of the cabin crew and passengers.

These are highly resilient pieces of kit, able to withstand extreme heat, jarring crashes and tonnes of pressure. Equipped with an underwater locator beacon (ULB), if an aircraft crashes into water, the beacon sends out an ultrasonic pulse that is detectable by sonar and audio equipment to depths to approximately 14,000 feet. Incredibly, the beacon is powered by a battery that has a shelf life of six years; once the beacon begins pinging, it pings once per second for 30 days. 

Internet of things and the future

But it’s looking increasingly likely that the little black box – which is actually orange so easily identifiable if lost - will be replaced by streaming all essential data directly to a ground-based station. Oliver McGee, a former scientific adviser and deputy transportation secretary to Bill Clinton has already asked the aviation industry to move in this direction - unsurprisingly in the interests of safety.

Systems like this already exist. Air-to-ground systems send flight data to a home base via satellite, which help to eliminate the desperate search for a box, and saving time that might lead to support being provided to a flight in trouble much sooner - possibly averting a crisis.

With the development of the ‘internet of things’ and the wide range of sensors that link data from a wide range of objects to the internet, technology is moving forwards quickly. Many cars currently send data via the internet to inform insurance policies, for example. 

This ability to connect a plane to the internet and track it could open up opportunities for the online travel industry. For one, there could be better alignment of services for the customer, especially if the data – always a tricky issue - could be shared with key partners. This could also lead to new forms of partnership. Imagine, for example, if disaster recovery could be informed by new technologies, and the possibility for a wide range of mobile applications to be developed to support tracking of the plane as well as individual passengers.

Speaking in January this year, even before the tragic loss of their flights, Dean Dacko, Senior Vice President Marketing, Malaysia Airlines, had recognised that “customers expect answers sooner - if they tweet at you, they want an answer in 20 minutes”. He also said that it was important to “now embrace the new mobile reality - the always on”. He could not have known then how critical that would become in the wake of the airline’s disasters.

There can be no denying that with the explosion data, the opportunity to track and respond in real-time is where harnessing big data comes into play. This presents opportunities in the future to increase customer safety and at the same time to offer new services to improve the customer experience in the travel industry. 

Overcoming the current constraints that include major infrastructure developments, such as one undertaken by Hilton [Hilton on how to deliver purposeful innovation and digital goodwill] pointed out this week.

Unsurprisingly then, satellite and GPS capacity, data storage speeds and the length of battery life are all areas that are being developed by scientists to support new innovations that are faster and lighter. The challenge is the need to build the systems to manage the high volumes of data that are needed to make it possible to track all commercial flight activity, especially the use of satellites and data storage.

What’s also key is that the industry is interdependent, airlines are connected to a wide range of trade partners and having data sooner can help improve services for customers not only in flight but in all aspects of a traveller’s journey - and importantly for their families and networks.

If you missed Dean Dacko’s presentation today in New York, join us in Berlin for Online Marketing, Mobile & Social Media in Travel Europe 2014. Alternatively you can access previous talks or access his talks on EyeforTravel’s comprehensive content library

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