Global Aircraft Tracking Gets Under Way

 - July 3, 2014, 5:00 AM

In the four months since the March 8 disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777, the consensus on what happened appears to have boiled down to one basic view, simply stated by International Air Transport Association (IATA) director general Tony Taylor at the association’s annual meeting in Doha, Qatar, on June 2. “The loss of MH370 continues to be on everybody’s mind. I have no idea what happened to that aircraft,” he said. “I don’t think anyone else has, either.”

Will the aircraft ever be found? Tantalizingly, the intermittent and wavering sonar pulses from its underwater locating device were clearly indicating the approaching end of its 30-day battery life as the airborne search aircraft neared its general location, only to peter out completely before a reliable position could be established. With the aircraft wreckage lying thousands of feet down on an ocean floor described as “mountainous,” and in a potential search area of hundreds, possibly even thousands, of square miles, the probability of pinpointing it in the near future using current technology is considered remote. Such an eventuality, Tyler vowed, “must not happen again.”

Aircraft Tracking Task Force

To that end, in May ICAO called a special meeting of member states and aviation industry representatives–including a couple of dozen actual or potential manufacturers of aircraft tracking systems–to develop an action plan on global aircraft tracking. Conduct of the overall plan was then assigned to IATA, supported by ICAO, as the Aircraft Tracking Task Force (AATF) under the direction of Kevin Hyatt, IATA senior vice president for safety and flight operations. Members of the ATTF will be specialists recruited from the ranks of ICAO, airlines, flight safety organizations, OEMs, ANSPs, pilots, air traffic controllers, ATM experts and flight tracking and service providers.

Hyatt made it clear from the outset that the objective of his planned team of specialists will not be to select a candidate system to meet the requirement. Rather, the team’s goal will be to clearly establish true operational requirements from among the many different approaches that have been proposed since the aircraft’s disappearance. And, as Hyatt pointed out, the options are unlikely to be “one size fits all,” because of the variety of specific issues that could arise across the aviation industry under such unpredictable circumstances.

That alone presents the team with a tight schedule for its interim report, which must include some thoughtful assessments of the various stakeholder priorities, since it is tasked with presenting its initial results in less than two months. Consequently, said Taylor, “We will come out with draft options in September and present them to ICAO. They would then be presented when our board meets in December.” Following that, a final Concept of Operations (Conops) will be delivered to the ICAO High Level Safety Conference in Montreal next February.

Performance-based Solutions, Not a Fixed Technical Mandate

The Conops that will be presented to ICAO will be exactly that: a concept of operations, and not a fixed technical specification describing a mandated end system that must be adopted by all aircraft, large and small, operating locally or worldwide. According to one ICAO official, while the final standard adopted by ICAO will define what an acceptable system must be able to achieve in given circumstances, it will be expressed in performance-based terms appropriate to the user’s operational application. ICAO’s exact timetable for releasing a formal standard is unclear, but it is not expected for at least several months following the February safety conference.

That does not, however, mean that aircraft operators will wait until the ICAO standard is published. Sources in the aviation insurance industry advise AIN that the loss of Air France Flight 447 in June 2009 had already triggered shareholder concerns about the impact of that event upon what was then regarded as one of the safest investments in the transportation sector, and which in turn had created closer scrutiny of the safety practices of their airline clientele, including strict audits in several cases. The unaccountable loss of the Malaysian 777 in March, less than five years later, has brought about even tighter scrutiny of airline equipage, training and usage, AIN learned.

Consequently, while the airline insurance industry is following the ATTF activity closely, airline operators also stated at the initial ICAO special meeting that they would voluntarily adopt new technologies or procedures that are seen as enhancing their overall safety plans, whether or not those seem likely to be recognized in the future ICAO standards. “Typically, a global standard can take two or three years to put in place,” said Nancy Graham, director of the ICAO Air Navigation Bureau. “This will expedite that process because we will have learned a lot of lessons from the voluntary path.”

Coming Safety Technologies

Although the 2009 Air France accident was attributed to incorrect handling while the pilots attempted to regain control after an unusual upset, the fact that it took almost two years to recover the flight data and cockpit voice recorders from the deep ocean bed showed clearly that their designed alerting and recording periods were inadequate for protracted searches. Since the Air France loss the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has been developing extensions in the operating times of aircraft underwater locating devices (ULDs) and cockpit voice recorders (CVRs). The current 30-day ULD sonar location signal transmitting period will extend to 90 days, while the CVR will record for 20 hours, versus two hours with current units. In addition, next-generation ULDs planned for release in 2019 will emit pulses at 8.8 kHz for greater penetration/reception range versus the current higher, but shorter-range, 37.5-kHz pulses.

There seems little doubt within the avionics industry that the loss of all means of communications with Malaysian Flight 370 can no longer be attributed to a series of unrelated, coincidental avionics failures. An ATTF member suggested to AIN that as part of the ATTF investigation the avionics architectures of all air transport aircraft are to be analyzed for vulnerabilities that would allow unauthorized access for disabling by skilled or unskilled people. Detection of such attempted activity would trigger automatic transmission of alerts to the flight crew and to company dispatchers.

UK-based Inmarsat, which provides satellite communication services to 11,000 airliners, responded to the ATTF’s survey of manufacturers that it would offer free tracking service to aircraft on oceanic service. This would be a key enabler, since one of the limitations of satellite tracking until now has been its high cost to airlines.

Several working papers describing various tracking proposals were offered at the initial ICAO special meeting in May. An interesting paper from the Russian State Research Institute of Aviation Systems described two alternatives: one covered an Institute-developed theoretical global concept, while the other offered a strong endorsement of the NavCanada/Iridium consortium’s Aireon project which, besides providing worldwide voice and data communications, plans to place space-based equivalents of the FAA’s current ADS-B ground stations on board Iridium Next’s 66 crosslinked earth-orbiting satellites. Aireon is intended to cover the world, pole to pole, by 2020 and the satellite-based ADS-B stations would provide seamless all-altitude surveillance, with little or no modification to ADS-B units installed in aircraft.

Tracking Costs

Unquestionably, the need for an independent aircraft global tracking solution can no longer be regarded by the airline industry–and particularly by its customers–as “nice to have, if you can afford it.” It has now become an imperative, despite the fact that the unexplained loss of Malaysian Flight 370 can only be described statistically as a totally improbable event in the history of mankind’s safest form of travel. But the traveling public wants none of that. Reaching one’s destination under safe and trouble-free circumstances is their only acceptable criterion.

Yet the airline industry operates along a knife edge of profitability in what many see as a troubling world, where unexpected operating-cost fluctuations can bankrupt smaller or less well funded air carriers. On the introduction of new or updated tracking requirements, IATA’s Taylor observed, “We must find a way of doing it that doesn’t add significantly to cost. Margins are very thin in the business.”

While safety cannot be traded for economic benefit, the ATTF team members will, over the next several months, face many challenging decisions.