Technology that could have solved the mystery of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 is currently used by only one airline in the world: First Air, which flies in the Canadian Arctic.
The system, made by Calgary tech company FLYHT Aerospace Solutions, has been around for about five years.
"First Air was the first to say, 'We want the whole deal because our crews and our passengers fly in a very difficult part of the world,'" says Matt Bradley, president of FLYHT Aerospace Solutions.
The system has two parts.
- The Automated Flight Information Reporting System, or AFIRS, is a blue box about the size of a briefcase that's located in the electrical system of an aircraft. The box monitors flight paths, fuel and engine levels.
- The FLYHTStream, which streams data from an aircraft to the ground in real time. The data streaming is automatically triggered when the AFIRS detects a predefined abnormal event, and can also be turned on by the flight crew or by ground personnel.
More than 400 airplanes from 40 different airlines use the reporting system to monitor fuel and engine levels. But only First Air uses the system in tandem with the streaming system.
'Not a revenue driver'
The airline has had the reporting system in its planes for three years, and it brought in the data-streaming system in May 2014.
"It's not a revenue driver," says Bradley. "It doesn't make the airline money like a business class seat or an extra baggage fee. It costs money."
First Air spent about $1.8 million to install AFIRS in its 18 aircraft, and the data-streaming system costs it an additional $22,000 a year.
Installing AFIRS on an aircraft costs $120,000. The data-streaming system costs an additional $100 per month per plane.
"In aviation terms, it's really not that expensive," says Vic Charlebois, First Air's vice-president of flight operations.
For an airline that connects most of the communities in Nunavut, from Resolute Bay in Nunavut's High Arctic to Cambridge Bay on the western edge of the Northwest Passage, it's essential.
"Up in the High Arctic, there is no radar," Charlebois. "It is very difficult to communicate with aircraft. To add to the safety monitoring of the aircraft, to have the black box data streamed to the ground and have an accurate position should something happen to our aircraft was just the natural evolution and growth of the product and what we wanted out of it."
Black box use limited
Commercial flights have black boxes that record all flight data and communication, but that information can only be accessed after the box is recovered.
Most planes now have technology that sends out their location. However, some technology only works with radar, and radar coverage is sparse in remote areas, like in the Canadian Arctic or over oceans.
Other systems aren't able to pinpoint exactly where an aircraft might have gone down, instead giving a search area thousands of kilometres wide.
"I think the general public feels that when they get on an aircraft, they're tracked, everybody knows where they are at all times and that we have the same kind of systems on an aircraft that we expect from our cell phone connectivity," Bradley says.
"As we realize from these incidents, that's just not true."
Industry must act
Both Bradley and Charlebois say the aviation industry moves slowly when it comes to new technology. New systems have to be vigorously vetted and sometimes airlines have to wait years before each company's engineers approve the installation of new technology.
But Canadian aviation analyst Robert Kokonis says that has to change.
"The industry really needs to get their act together here," he says.
"With the FLYHT streaming, in the case of the Malaysia aircraft, it would have automatically started to stream the black box data. We would have known what happened to the aircraft and where it actually went down."
Bradley says FLYHT Aerospace Solutions has received a number of inquiries about the streaming technology since the AirAsia plane crash last month.