Op-Ed: Safety of life in-flight must be priority


Following the Air France 447 tragedy, there were calls to stream complex and data-intensive Flight Data Recorder and Cockpit Voice Recorder information, but that effort stalled over satellite capacity, costs and privacy issues. Nothing happened, and now we have Malaysian 370.

In fact, and more to the point, FDR/CVR data streaming is unnecessary. What is needed is improved, persistent overwater flight following — a better fix on where an incident aircraft was most recently, its trajectory, and an improved estimate of where it may rest.

Such flight following position information can be provided by an automatic, un-interruptible upload, once per minute, of GPS-derived latitude/longitude, altitude, heading and speed data, on a persistent VHF link when over-land and via a persistent satellite link when out of VHF range, over water. That is not a lot of data, even for what are 30,000 daily overwater airline flights worldwide. Moreover, off-the-shelf technology and satellite bandwidth and capacity is available to do it now, while greatly expanded capacity in new, under-utilized satellite spectrum is going up into orbit every year.

Of course, the industry lobby will claim it can’t afford it — can’t afford more than the 1950s-era High Frequency radio it uses today, the technology equivalent of two tin cans and a string, used half-hourly, if that. “Can’t afford it”, even as airlines are already lining up, competing to offer passengers pay-per-use satellite-based broadband services.

Once airlines facilitate e-mail, Facebook and Twitter feeds, and streaming “Downton Abbey” re-runs via satellite broadband for a fee, the above mentioned GPS position data cost is below noise level in the overall expense of providing the satellite entertainment facility.

The maritime industry has over the decades since the Titanic tragedy refined its SOLAS “Safety Of Life At Sea” regulations, including specification of ship design, life rafts, life preservers, and International Telecommunications Union designation of radio spectrum to emergency services. SOLAS has mandated satellite tracking of ocean-going vessels since 1988.

The airline and air cargo industry needs to expand and further refine its approach to flight following, persistent position data and safety, on what is now and what will be an ever-increasing number of flights and block hours flown on long-haul “blue water” and transpolar missions, enhancing, making more robust, and preserving “Safety Of Life Inflight”.

Robert MannAbout the author, Robert Mann:

In 1993, Mann founded and since then has operated as the Principal of R.W. Mann & Company, Inc. consultancy, specializing in the identification, development and implementation of structural improvements to productivity, operations, process and distribution efficiency, and resulting firm profitability.

He has conducted more than one hundred and twenty client engagements and has experience with more than 80 firms on five continents, including numerous long-term, on-site, productivity identification and implementation engagements, including major carrier restructurings, on-site shadow management, business process change, and facilitating constructive management/labor dialogue, engagement and partnerships. @RWMann on Twitter


  1. Jim Anderson

    Great idea. What infrastructure will it use? Who’s maintaining? The author says the industry will say it cost too much. Ok. How much will it cost? Put it in dollars and cents. It’s not a lot of data. Ok. How much is not a lot?

    It’s absurd to keep bringing this up without facts. Otherwise it’s just cheap publicity.

  2. Infrastructure can be anything from legacy Swift datalink to piggybacking on soon-to-be-installed broadband Ka-band services. Data quantity-wise, a current digital Flight Data Recorder would stream upwards of a terrabyte, versus once-per-minute aircraft ID/position/altitude/heading/speed data amounting to 1080 16-byte squitters per 18 hour aircraft day. That is less than 20k bytes amidst gigabytes of entertainment programming. Ongoing costs would be less than $20 per overwater sector. VHF radio would be used overland and within ~200NM of shore where there is line-of-sight VHF datalink coverage via ARINC, SITA and their national partners.

  3. Dan

    Perhaps the consultancies groups such as R.W. Mann and Company and/or the journalist should go talk to manufacturers of these equipment (For e.g. Honeywell and L-3 are the 2 largest FDR/CVR suppliers) and the OEMs, ICAO, IATA, A4A…….and proposed real solutions that are substantiated and vetted with several stakeholders, otherwise it is indeed cheap publicity

  4. Mary Kirby

    Jim and Dan,

    Thanks for your comments.

    We’ve posted multiple stories about multiple solutions. This OpEd, in the #PaxEx Forum of the site (where industry stakeholders are invited to comment) is one of several pieces. And it is now clarified in the headline that this is OpEd.

    Here is what we’ve done thus far.





    We have submitted requests for deep interviews with Iridium, Honeywell and Inmarsat. We had a 2-week long standing request-for-interview with Boeing to discuss options *before* MH370 even occurred.

    We believe that all avenues should be explored as the industry mulls a solution, and we believe that dialog about all current and possible future solutions is good. Disagreement is healthy; it means that discussion is taking place about how to ensure MH370 and AF447 *never* happen again.

  5. Dan

    Great to have forums to debate and propose ideas (even unconventional /out if box), just as studies also need to be conducted. But if they are prematurely being deemed or concluded as the right solution is wrong (and perhaps biased/self serving).

    For some of us who either have worked in ATM/airline ops and/or suppliers, know and deeply understand the challenges and for us to hear ideas and conclusions that don’t consider the many factors and stakeholders, is frustrating.

    So, let’s continue the debate/discussions, but with respect and regard for all the work that goes on to come up with cost effective solutions that makes sense.

  6. The thing *I* find incredible about this is that there are numerous flight statistics APIs out there. It wouldn’t be a whole lot of technology infrastructure and coding to monitor every flight and inform the authorities within seconds to minute that a flight had stopped transponding. If what I’ve heard about MH370 is correct, someone would have been able to attempt to raise the flight and scramble a jet if it failed to respond within minutes after the transponder quit.

    Yeah, we need the other stuff too, but this is something a few hackers could bang out in a hurry. And an organization (the US NSA) that claims to ‘want it all’ wouldn’t have to spend much money to monitor these streams.

  7. Whichever ‘cost-effective solutions’ that finally the Profession will chose to implement, the new FAR121 addendum – of yet another ‘No-Go item’ to the MEL – ought to be dubbed the ‘Runway Girl Addendum’, in tribute to Mary’s commendable efforts as one of the fore-running proselytes of broadband live passenger aircraft data streaming we know her to always have been.

  8. Jim Anderson

    Dan says it all. There is a MASSIVE amount of “monday morning quarterbacking” going on here. If things were so urgent after AF, where was the “coverage?” Ok. Outstanding interview requests. Great. That’s the bulk of it? Sounds like “if it bleeds it leads.”

    Mr. Mann, thank you for addressing my questions about cost. That $20 per “overwater sector” means what? How does that extrapolate out?

    Understand this. I agree 100% that this is necessary. I do think that the coverage of it from the “non-discussion” perspective is just a bunch of self-promotion for some veiled in doing something for the greater good.

    • I’m not selling anything, Dan et al. I’m shaming the industry into action. $20 in data charges per overwater sector is exactly what it says. For most long-haul blue water aircraft that is $40/day (out and back). Far, far less than they waste on any number of manageable costs.

    • I would further note that the costs are already in place, but are externalized to the public. The costs of SAR could be significantly reduced by near real-time flight following and procedural change. The sort of changes that the cruise ship industry mandated, albeit reluctantly, after a series of high profile incidents and resulting need to tow and/or rescue passengers from cruise ships.

  9. Jim Anderson

    Forgive me if the simple statement “$40 a day is what it will take” is a little simplistic, Mr. Mann. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I am pretty sure there’s a tad it more to it than that…

  10. I think people are saying real-time Geo-location of thousands of aircraft might be very expensive for the industry, but this might not be the case.

    One of the things this blog covered was why there was GPS co-ordinates in Inmarsat’s data from MH370’s ACARS system pings — it’s basically there because the satellite needs to know where to beam data.

    So a simple solution could involve only software & security upgrade of ACARS systems. The software upgrade would provide for continuous pings of the satellite — normal ACARS data could remain on the 1 hour (?) upload schedule minimizing cost. The continuous ACARS pings would give more or less exact co-ordinates – eliminating scenarios where currently with MH370 there are two possible routes. The security aspect would involve measures to safeguard against any tampering of the ACARS systems on aircraft — tampering would trigger some sort of alarm at the airline base.


    Staying with ACARS GPS data:

    My question is, could the ACARS system be hacked and fed false GPS data to ping the Inmarsat satellites? From what I understand, the aircraft tells the satellite where it is, not the other way. Is this possible?

  11. Dan

    Paulo M (Sergio)- In order to answer your question adequately and precisely, someone would need to share the ICD (interface control documents) that are proprietary to Boeing for 777. But the short answer is no.