When I divide $18,000 by 49, I get $367. and change. I didn't pull those numbers out of the air. RAAS, Honeywell's sensor-assist software product might very well have kept the crew of Comair's flight #5191 from trying to lift off from a short taxiway. RAAS costs $18,000. The fiery crash that ensued took 49 lives. Works out to $367. and change per head.
For the News-Aversive
Let me bring you up to speed. On Sunday, August 27, a Comair flight was cleared for takeoff around 6:00 a.m. from Blue Grass, a small airstrip near Lexington, Kentucky. Only one air controller was on the job. There should have been two—they have different responsibilities. (The one who was there had slept all of 2 hours after his previous 15-hour shift. Apparently, it was within regulation bounds. Just an FYI.)
No one is entirely sure how it was that the crew tried to take off from a 3500 foot taxiway with broken pavement and minimal lighting rather than from the 7000 foot properly illuminated and paved runway. But they did. The result was a horrific plowing into a nearby field. Only the first officer survived. Everyone else burned up.
What Is This RAAS?
The Runway Awareness and Advisory System is a software package that can be hosted in Honeywell's Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System (EGPWS). So first let's see how EGPWS works. It is an "independent monitor of an aircraft's position relative to its surrounding terrain." It takes inputs including "aircraft position, attitude, airspeed, and glideslope," along with "internal terrain, obstacles, and airport databases," and uses these data to predict a collision or impact. All but the database-nosing part are the work of various sensors, you can bet. And most of the EGPWS systems incorporate GPS cards that are plenty helpful for pilots trying to make it into the smaller ports and fields without guidance towers and on-duty personnel.
What RAAS does is add an auditory alert to the cockpit crew that in effect summarizes the sensor data and advises that corrective action needs to be taken—and NOW. Here's the skinny on that product. It addresses situations such as "aircraft alignment on a runway, inadvertent takeoff on a taxiway, runway distance remaining during rejected takeoff or while landing long, and approaches to runways that are too short for safe takeoff and landing." It received FAA certification in 2003. That sounds hard to pass up for $18,000.
Not Just Comair
Worldwide, some 600 commercial and business carriers have sprung for RAAS; another 700 are on order. Of the 8000 U.S. commercial aircraft, only Alaska Airlines has thus equipped its fleet as far as I can determine. No domestic commuter line has followed suit. But Air France, FedEx, Lufthansa, and Malaysia Airlines have put their money down. The reason for the foot-dragging seems to be one of economics.
Do you think those left behind by the 49 crew and passengers on flight #5191 will accept a check for $367. and go away? Would you?