GPS on a Plane

Listening to the news about the French plane that went down over the Atlantic it came to light that there are no radar stations keeping track of your location once you get a certain distance from land. I thought the routes that were flown were always pretty close to land or islands that still kept radar contact. Then what troubled me is that the aviation “expert” said that the technology we use is still WWII era type of equipments. I immediately was baffled.

I know a jet mechanic for a private firm that has four private jets. They have their own hangar and travel all over the world. This mechanic was in charge of all operations and would sometimes travel with the planes when they were going overseas. Each plane pretty much always had a mechanic in the crew, because when overseas they did not trust anyone to fix their planes. I had a chance to learn a lot about these planes thanks to my friend.

I had never been inside of a private jet, or a private hangar for that matter. It was amazing how different they were from commercial planes, the equipment, the amenities. Heck, it made me even dream of someday owning a plane. He also told me about the history of planes and how much they had changed… and how much they had not changed. He liked the subject and I was pretty receptive to learning more about planes.

My interest for planes picked up a lot after I read the Michael Crichton’s Airframe because it had to be more fiction than actual. I mean the dude did bring dinosaurs to life and oversimplified quantum physics, he could not possibly be this spot on with the air travel industry, could he?

Then the “expert” on the news added insult to injury. We have GPS in our mobile phones and cars, but most planes don’t have GPS. That is when I fell robbed by the knowledge that my friend gave me. I had assumed that airliners had better technology, or at least updated technology than a private plane. I know hindsight I should not have assumed that, but technology wise, how easy is to add GPS to a plane or even simply send off a signal that records simultaneously what the block box records?

Five years ago I would have said that the amount of data being recorded was too much, but after visiting the AMC Main Street and now knowing that terabytes of data are being moved so quickly and efficiently made me question why the air industry is not moving faster than the entertainment industry. If internet access is already being offered in some planes, why aren’t companies installing systems to have constant data communication with a plane?

I am not thinking of just after the fact studying the reasons for the crash either. My train of though is more towards being able to rescue people from the middle of the sea by knowing their exact location after a catastrophic failure.

From what is known about this crash it is possible that lightning might have been the culprit here which would have taken out the electrical system. I think that if the systems in planes were better from a technology stand point, we would not be wondering where the plane went down (or if the plane went down) like we were initially. I seriously think that technology has to be a priority for airlines, specially if they are flying over large bodies of water away from radar.

14 comments on “GPS on a Plane

  1. They had some expert on the news yesterday, and he was saying that there are so many redundant system on the plane and that planes are designed to take lightning strikes, that the chances of lightning taking it down were pretty slim. Unless they can get the black boxes we may never know. But I agree with you that on a new plane like that where you can surf the web or make phone calls, how is that data not streamed back some how.

  2. Logtar – The answer to all of these questions is simple. Profit.

    For 41 years, from 1937 to 1978, the airline industry was regulated by the Civil Aeronautics Board. They ran the airline industry as a public utility and had authority over fares, routes, and schedules. They also ensured that airlines enjoyed a reasonable rate of return. Key word being “reasonable”.

    You may have seen ads or movies from that time. Passengers viewed traveling by air as something special and would even dress up for the occasion. In turn, the airline staff treated the passengers like they were guests in a 4 star hootel. Air travel was fun and enjoyable.

    But in 1978 the airline industry was deregulated and the powers of the CAB were phased out. The airlines were left to fend for themselves, subject to the whims of the marketplace.

    More and more seats were added to the airframe, squeezing passengers into tighter and tighter spaces. Staff was reduced. Meals were reduced or eliminated all together. Maintenance was compromised. Routes deemed to be unprofitable were eliminated, leaving many without access to air travel. Airlines began routinely overbooking their planes, selling more tickets than they had seats available. Passengers with expensive tickets were told there is no room for you. Sorry!

    Airlines were under tremendous financial pressure. They begrudged every dime that needed to be spent that didn’t have a positive ROI. So modern GPS devices and streaming flight data were never even a consideration.

    The ONLY reason you are starting to see inflight internet is because we are all addicted to our electronic devices and giving you access to them in the air helps the airlines fill their planes to capacity. They hate empty seats.

    Private aircraft, however, do not suffer from this type of pressure. Corporations do not operate their own aircraft to make money. They operate their own aircraft in order to transport the executives who DO make them money from point A to point B as quickly, as efficiently, and as SAFELY as possible. That is why they carry a mechanic with them. A commercial airliner would NEVER carry a non-paying jet mechanic aboard “just in case”. Hell, they don’t even like having to transport the Air Marshalls who guard against hijackings because they take up seats that can’t be sold to passengers.

    They reason that air travel is not more technologically advanced is simple. Capitalism and the profit motive.

  3. I was told once, and I have not real backing of this, that air travel is essentially financed by “airmail” and that passengers are actually not the profit centers are all but the actual freight. I don’t think it is a true statement, but I don’t know any pilots that I can ask this question to… no idea how it actually works on the airline side of things.

  4. Airlines…profit… Those words dont usually go together in the same sentence.

  5. See, I’d think that the GPS issue has more to do with tower communication and availability, but I don’t even know if that’s how GPS works! Hmm…after a quick googleing, it looks like satellite technology (duh, Faith), so its more satellite availability than tower, but kind of on the same wavelength, so to speak.

    I’d imagine the cost of tracking planes via GPS could get exhorbitantly prohibitive, just based on my (very basic) knowledge of how expensive something as simple as roaming from cell tower to cell tower costs.

    I agree that the tech needs to be caught up to the times we’re living in. But I worry about the costs that will be passed on to passengers…

  6. Yeah, I was pretty surprised that they actually “lost” an airplane of that size and that there wasn’t a working GPS in there. But I think the fact that the pilot didn’t communicate anything means that something pretty serious and fast happened to the equipment (maybe an explosion).

  7. XO, once again your socialistic tendencies lead you to the wrong conclusion. People in the 50’s and 60’s dressed up to fly because it was a big deal. Flying was prohibitively expensive and only the rich flew anywhere (and didn’t fly very often). If you’re wanting to make things great for the rich again, by all means, regulate the airline fares again.

    But since deregulation consumers have more choice (more routes are in service now than any time in the regulated era), lower fares and safer travel than anytime in the regulated era.

    Airlines don’t carry a mechanic with them because mechanical failures account for a miniscule amount of accidents. Commercial airliners just don’t fail mechanically enough to even consider carrying a mechanic.

    It is simply not accurate to say that the regulated era of air travel was better for consumers than the current era.

  8. Your post sums up why I will never set foot on a plane, along with the insane security procedures that haven’t made us any safer than we were before the 9/11 attacks. Plus most planes are older than our cars. (well maybe not my car)

    I think I’ll take my chances in my car.

  9. Andrea,

    The facts are that your still much more likely to die in your car than a plane.

  10. Bull – My dad worked for TWA for 25 years. Before that, he worked for Boeing. I’ve been around the airline industry all my life and I’ve done a lot of travelling.

    Remember a little thing called “Stand By”? When the airlines had empty seats, they would let them go at a very reduced fare or even free to people who otherwise couldn’t afford air travel.

    Members of the Armed Forces who were in uniform could get priority Stand By passage anywhere they wanted to go, for free.

    Pretty sure the carriers flying today aren’t that generous.

  11. Stand-by still exists. Not sure what you’re saying there, XO. Its usually used for people who would like to make changes to their already scheduled flight plans for no cost, rather than what you’re suggesting it was used for a long time ago (which, let’s be honest, could never happen these days…I mean, with terror concerns and tracking issues, they could never allow even a military individual to just hang out in the airport and catch a free ride whenever it might pop up. You have to be realistic, for pete’s sake…not necessarily a generosity issue as it is a safety one, I’d think). And Mark L. is right Andrea. Being afraid because one plane out of literally hundreds of thousands of flights that have taken place since the 1st of the year went down is kind of extreme. You could get hit by a bus, or stung by a killer bee, or shot in a robbery. Hell, you could hae a heart attack and die! Flying isn’t any less safe than any other thing you do day in and day out.

  12. Not to pile on Andrea, but when you talk about “insane security procedures that haven’t made us any safer than we were before the 9/11 attacks”, exactly how many terrorist hijackings have we had since those procedures were implemented? Zero if I am correct. Not to mention there is really no way to determine how effective preventative measures like that are. Since if they simply discouraged someone from trying anything, no one knows that it “stopped” one attack….

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *