Triggered by the loss of an Air France Airbus A330 in June 2009 in the Atlantic and compounded by the loss of a Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 in the Indian Ocean in March, representatives of ICAO member states and of the aviation industry agreed on a set of near-term priority actions and a framework for medium- and long-term objectives, at a special meeting on global aircraft tracking at ICAO in Montreal on May 14.
Currently, there appears to be no uniform airline adoption of automated tracking and alerting systems, and many of those that are carried appear to be only marginally adequate to meet the potential demand that could be placed on them. In many cases, tracking consists of periodic reports from the aircraft crews to their company operations bases. Consequently, the near-term purpose of the meeting was to establish a set of broad action guidelines to support the objective of automatic tracking for individual airliners at any location on the earth’s surface.
The near-term guidelines include the development of a draft concept of operations and the establishment of an industry Aircraft Tracking Task Force under the aegis of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), in coordination with an ICAO/IATA advisory group. Assistance would also be sought from search-and-rescue and other special-expertise sources, with a final high level Conops document delivered to the ICAO High Level Safety Conference, planned for next February in Montreal.
In the mid-term, emphasis would be placed on developing performance-based processes in support of accident location, search-and-rescue and investigation, while also stressing the need for flexible response capabilities compatible with differing regional and operational conditions. A key element here would be the involvement of various states and international agencies in allocating supporting communications spectrum, including satellite and radio services for emergencies, with ICAO aiming to have this considered at the International Telecommunications Union’s (ITU) World Radio Conference next year. Last, the Cospas-Sarsat organization should be invited to investigate further the performance of emergency locator transmitter systems in aircraft distress situations.
The major long-term task will be the coordination of ICAO/ITU development efforts toward network communications associated with remote storage of flight information.
At this point, the ICAO/industry consensus agreement consists of broad-brush requirements that will take time to flesh out fully. For business aviation, for example, it remains unclear whether tracking systems will be a requirement for scheduled airliners only, with equipage levels appropriate to their size and routes, or whether they should be mandatory for a much broader operator class. In addition, there is the question of security, where the safety benefits of a Gulfstream’s automatic and tamper-proof tracking system might conflict with the interests of its mining company owner and his engineering team en route to, say, an undisclosed African destination.