“Once it’s broadcast, the data from a plane would essentially be considered public access material — something that aircraft manufacturers, pilot unions, operators and even accident investigators don’t want,” Clifford says.
There’s also a question of who would receive and control that data. There are concerns that an airline, plane maker or government worried about its reputation could meddle with the information.
“You can’t assume that there would not be strong economic interests to tamper with information,” says James E. Hall, former chairman of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.
A compromise solution is to create deployable black boxes — data recorders similar to the voice and data recorders currently in planes. During a catastrophic event, they would break away from the tail, have their own homing devices and ideally be found quickly. But given the confusion over the Malaysia Airlines jet’s flight path, it’s unclear if these boxes could help.
Then there’s the search: The Malaysian government has been widely criticized for how long the search has taken and for its release of contradictory information.
So, why aren’t American investigators, who have a long history of dealing with plane crashes, taking charge? NTSB investigators and experts from Boeing are on the scene providing technical assistance. So are U.S. military ships and planes. But politics and customs dictate that everybody takes a back seat to the local government.
The practice dates back to a December 1944 convention on international civil aviation in Chicago. Many of today’s rules of the sky were formed at that meeting, including one that puts the country where a crash occurs in charge of the search and investigation. If the airplane is registered in another country — which isn’t the case here — that government is entitled to appoint observers to be present at the inquiry.