Cabin crew could trigger distress signal under Inmarsat proposal


Inmarsat today surprised the aviation industry by offering to provide basic flight tracking services free of charge to airlines. But the London-headquartered satellite company – which has played a pivotal role in the search for Malaysia Airlines MH370 – has also suggested that carriers consider empowering flight attendants with the ability to initiate a ‘satcom flare’ that would serve as a distress signal in the event of an emergency.

In the maritime industry, Inmarsat responds to distress signals “and it’s not only the pilots who have the right to do that”, noted Inmarsat Aviation president Miranda Mills in an interview with Runway Girl Network last week at the Aircraft Interiors Expo. “So in the rare instance where there is an accident and – rare again – where it’s not actually the pilot who is necessarily focused on that, then there’s a second human element where there could be a button pressed and a satcom flare is sent up. In maritime, there is the actual [physical] flare, but there is also the satcom flare, the distress signal sent over the airways,” says Mills.

Inmarsat has tabled the idea to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). “Our chairman and [IATA CEO] Tony Tyler were together earlier [last] week. We’re just down the road from them anyway, so we have quite active discussions with them on a whole range of subjects. But they talk to everyone, but even at top level, those level conversations are taking place,” says Mills.

An IATA spokesman says the organization is “focused on flight tracking” and “all options are on the table”. IATA has already signaled its willingness to help industry define a subset of criteria that would trigger a transmission of critical flight data.

A satcom flare system would require modification to aircraft, and is certainly not Inmarsat’s first proposed line of defense. The Wall Street Journal reports that Inmarsat is willing to soak up the $10 million to $15 million cost of providing a basic flight tracking service. And Mills reiterated last week that the satcom equipment required to accommodate flight tracking for aircraft that fly over water is already installed “on over 90% of aircraft today. So the equipment is there. And it’s just a case of switching on the service.”

Interestingly, Inmarsat’s announcement that it is willing to shoulder the cost of basic flight tracking comes one week after Panasonic Avionics revealed it has begun packaging its eXConnect cabin connectivity system with Iridium voice and data for cockpit communications, and that it would be able to offer the latter for free when the Iridium NEXT satellite constellation is launched.

“We took that Iridium product and are now offering it to airlines all over the world. It’s in the process of being certified for safety services, and it will also be used very heavily in China for voice, which is required in China for every air transport aircraft. Iridium covers every inch of the globe, it’s an ‘everywhere solution’ whereas eXConnect is massive bandwidth where everyone flies,” says Panasonic VP Global Communications Services David Bruner. With the launch of Iridium NEXT, he says, Panasonic will be able to “package this with our eXConnect product” and basically offer Iridium service “for free, and you get a redundant service”. When it’s free, he suggests, “all customers will go for it. You could take just Iridium only, but it will be available in that packaging that makes it so simple for the airline and they can do it for free.”

Yet, even as the industry mulls flight tracking solutions, we as passengers are so reliant on pilots doing the right thing. The idea that cabin crew could trigger a distress signal if they perceive an anomaly – be it in the pilot’s behavior or perhaps something serious occurring in the cabin, like a PED battery-related fire going out of control – is comforting to some people.

We reached out to veteran former cabin crewmembers Sylvester Pittman and Darin Topham for their thoughts on the matter. Pittman and Topham, now known as the ‘Airline Guys’, work as consultants to the airline industry.

In reference to a satcom flare, says Pittman, “I think it’s a good thing; it’s an extra step to ensure all bases are covered when things are not going well. I think it would take a lot of training with each airline to make sure that this button pressed by the cabin crew is done as a last minute type of thing, not as an ‘I think I heard something or I think I smelled something or a passenger in the back is acting a little erratic’ sort of thing.”

Topham agrees, noting, “In aviation, we talk about redundancy. The cabin crew would obviously need to be trained in the proper usage. You’d need to know the parameters for when you flip the switch or press the button. But I think this is definitely a direction we should head, in order to ensure the safety of the crew and passengers. There are so many things that people are coming up with to harm people, and I think this is a great way for more people to be aware. Things like that on September 11 would have been handy too; crew would have known immediately that something was happening.”

Both men also point out that the traveling public doesn’t often appreciate or understand the role of flight attendants in ensuring the safety of passengers. “Unfortunately, it takes something bad to occur for people to feel good about cabin crew, and then focus on them, but then time goes by and they forget that, and that is unfortunate,” says Pittman.

At present, adds Topham, “the focus and interest is on the flight deck and making sure the pilots never become incapacitated and are able to land the plane in an emergency but that cockpit door also creates a psychological barrier, and crew feel left out, [as if to say] ‘you’re here to defend’. The ability to initiate a satcom flare might give them a little more security to feel a little more confident. You have pilots who carry weapons, but what do the flight attendants really have?”

Flight attendants already have access to the ground via VoIP telephones, such as for telemedicine, on connected aircraft, notes Jason Rabinowitz, a frequent flyer who serves as Routehappy airline research manager. But adding what equates to an emergency button for cabin crew – and perhaps even triggering a data transmission – “almost makes too much sense to not do it”.