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16 June 2016
The Unsung Heroes of the United Nations
The United Nation’s 17 Specialized Agencies are the unsung heroes of the UN system, working 24/7 to facilitate harmonious global standards of safety, health, security, travel, trade  and communications, among others. UN agencies care for the most vulnerable of the world’s population— the poor and the hungry, refugees and the displaced, minorities and the oppressed, and victims of ethnic and religious conflict and gender discrimination.

Air travel is a prime example. Global standards have made international flying the safest form of transportation. You are safer on that flight than you are traveling to and from the airports. It is not serendipity that aircraft and international airports are safe and the pilots and ground control communicate efficiently in the same language. This is due to the 72 years of standard setting by the now 191 member states  of the International Civil Aviation Organization (FAA) in Montreal.

Yet rare accidents do happen, and ICAO ensures global cooperation in finding the root causes and taking steps to ensure they do not happen again. In recent years there has been a greater emphasis on identifying problems before there is an accident and taking preventative measures.

After the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines  Flight 370 over the Indian Ocean in March 2014, ICAO took bold action under the skilled leadership of the Director of the Air Navigation Bureau, Nancy Graham, a US citizen and former Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Associate Administrator. ICAO expedited the creation of a Global Flight Tracking System.  [UNA-NCA held a program urging Global Flight Tracking in June 2014 featuring Nancy Graham as a keynote speaker.] Although the new system will evolve over several years, the fact that agreement on a schedule of implementation has been achieved demonstrates, in my judgment,  the effectiveness of expert US citizens in UN organizations. We have the technology to ensure that no commercial flight ever again simply disappears over international waters.

Despite the most expensive search in aviation history—over $100 million— MH 370 has not been found. Nor have the so-called black boxes (flight data and voice recorders)  which would provide essential information on the cause of the crash, which remains a mystery. It took two years for French ships to find the black boxes after the crash of Air France Flight 447 in the Atlantic Ocean on June 1, 2009. Sometimes recovery of the recorders may be delayed by hostilities in the crash site as was the case of Malaysian Airlines 17 shot down in eastern Ukraine, and the delay in finding the data and voice recorders from EgyptAir 804 means we cannot determine whether terrorism was the cause.  The search is a race against time since the batteries in the black boxes stop sending signals in about 30 days.

The enormous cost of these searches, the enduring pain of the victim’s families as they await information about the cause of an accident, and the inability of ICAO, industry  and governments to take corrective action to protect future flights all compel an expeditious reexamination of the data collection and transmission procedures. The black box system, introduced in the 1960’s, is antiquated, expensive and inadequate in an era of real time data streaming.

US leadership is again essential to modernize the use of data recorders. For starters, the battery life can be extended to at least 90 days as proposed by European Aviation Safety Organization, and recorders could be designed to eject during a crash,  float in international waters, and be detectable from the air. Standards can be phased in by applying them initially to commercial aircraft in overseas flights. Ultimately, however, some form of live streaming of data to a beacon or other temporary storage system should be required. Pilots must be assured that their privacy will be protected and airlines need to understand  that the additional equipment cost will be far less than the cost in human suffering, delayed corrective safety and security measures, and government searches. Cooperation of the International Telecommunications Union will be necessary in providing the necessary broadband.

Seeking agreement of 191 member states can be a very time consuming process, but US leadership, bringing the enormous technical expertise of the FAA and private industry to bear, can accelerate the process and address the concerns of the airlines and the pilots. Now is time to move forward.

Ambassador  Donald T. Bliss (rtd)
[Former US Ambassador to ICAO]