Should pilots be free to shut off tracking? That is the question

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IATA may be “a bit more nimble” than ICAO and therefore best suited to act quickly on proposed changes to aircraft tracking policies in the wake of the MH370 disappearance but it is not entirely clear that being the quickest means the group will have the best answers.

For IATA’s recently convened Aircraft Tracking Task Force (ATTF) and Kevin Hiatt, chair of its steering committee, progress has been rapid and is expected to maintain such a pace. It is unclear, however, if everyone in the group is on the same page or even if they’ve fully realized the scope of their mandate.

Both Hiatt and IATA CEO Tony Tyler agree that tracking aircraft – and not streaming data – is the first step and the only item the ATTF will be acting on at this juncture.

They also agree that the necessary technology likely already exists. Tyler stated this outright during IATA’s annual general meeting in Doha, and Hiatt noted that more than 30 vendors have been approved to present to the ATTF on how their products or services might address the tracking issue.

Ever since the 8 March disappearance of MH370, aerospace industry stakeholders have been aggressively flogging their flight tracking capabilities – from Inmarsat’s proposed “free” tracking service and Iridium’s planned Aireon global air traffic surveillance network to Panasonic’s FlightLink solution and SITA’s Aircom Server Flight Tracker, and many more.

Even Qatar Airways CEO Akbar al Bakar got in on this topic during the IATA conference, noting that his company was looking at options to receive tracking data via ACARS transmissions.

Bakar went a step further, though, suggesting that the data transmissions depend on the system remaining active and that removing such control from the pilots is likely a necessary step for the ATTF to recommend, “I’m sure [the ATTF] will pursue this matter further in order that nobody on an airplane will be able to switch off any system and that automatically an airplane will be tracked. We are in the 21st century and unfortunately we are still learning. I’m sure this will be a very big eye-opener for everybody, especially for CEOs of airlines who want to fly their aircraft in an extremely safe environment for our passengers and our crew.”

The Qatar Airways chief’s statement highlights the conundrum now faced by the industry – do you allow a flight tracking system to be shut off or don’t you?

Eurocontrol - flying without transponderAs Inmarsat VP Aviation David Coiley recently pointed out in reference to MH370, “Basically someone didn’t want to communicate, or didn’t want the aircraft systems to communicate, and appear to have taken steps to cut off all the systems that would normally be used to communicate to and from the aircraft.” But sometimes such action is not purposeful. Eurocontrol recently highlighted how flying without an activated transponder does happen (click on image to the right).

Leaning on his experience as a pilot Hiatt suggested in Doha that any proposal involving a flight tracking solution that cannot be turned off is going to require at least some discussions, and he intimated that it would likely be a hard sell.

“OEMs are telling us that potentially they can make the system tamper-proof, however, in the past…if I had a particular piece of equipment in the cockpit and I wanted to potentially stop it from being on fire I could reach somewhere and disable that,” said Hiatt. “Now we’re saying that we may want to take that away from the pilot so there’s some diverse opinions there which will be explored.”

It is easy to see that trading one version of aircraft safety for another might not ultimately be the best solution.

And then there is the 800 pound gorilla in the room: cost.

Tyler offered up the opinion that cost is a very real part of the discussion, “One of the issues we need to look at is, of course, the cost of doing all this. It would be wrong to think that this isn’t an important consideration. …We’ll need to talk about how much it might cost and who will pay for it.” Hiatt had a rather different take, suggesting that airline CEOs are consistent in their view that cost is not a factor in safety decisions. And while some did say that when asked publicly during a panel at the conference, it is not clear how that translates into actions. But if none of the CEOs were worried about the costs they’d already have the systems in place today, right?

Hiatt also stated, “I don’t expect that we’ll see the costs passed along to the passengers.” This view seems a bit naïve. He is certainly correct that “[M]aybe some carriers have almost all of what they need to start and there might be carriers that have absolutely nothing yet and they’re going to have to start,” and that positioning will change the costs to each carrier. But there will still be very real costs and until IATA or ICAO comes up with a set of guidelines it is unlikely that airlines will make any changes.

Finally, part of the cost equation is determining how many aircraft need to be fitted with the hardware. And neither Tyler nor Hiatt seem to have an answer to that question yet. Hiatt indicated in his briefing that, “We’re working on that number right now so we can define the scope of what we need to concentrate on.” It seems that the regions without radar coverage are well known. The number of planes crossing them, however, is not. Nor do we know what types of aircraft they are, the systems installed on board today or what can be installed. That’s a lot of unknowns for an organization which hopes to make recommendations in 3 months’ time.

Related link:

Airline meeting adjourns with earnest calls for flight tracking

11 Comments

  1. Barry

    Can a pilot of a 787 turn off the lithium ion batteries if a fire happens? No. We already make these decesions and I think a transponder is safer than the L-Ion batteries

  2. Tutched

    Hiatt: “in the cockpit and I wanted to potentially stop it from being on fire I could reach somewhere and disable that.”

    Sophistry. Not once does any pilot opining on this fix offer evidence of how prone to fire are transponders. Likely because they’re not, but if RGN can drop such a statistic on us, I’d love to know about it. Pilots currently have god-rights and their optics appear to show that as their focus rather than on passenger and crew survivability.

    What is most striking to me is how, lo these past 13 years since
    9-11-01, when the 9/11 Commission Report first called for the transponders to be made persistent, this is still, STILL resisted by a hide-bound, intractable, comparatively few.

    It’s insane.

    I and a growing number of aviation authorities, clearly, are pointing at the 900 lb. throbbing Achilles Tendon in the room and marvel anew at the continuing resistance to just making one of the redundant transponders persistent. No added weight, just added function.

    Do not raise the old complaint that ATC wants transponders off while on the tarmac (unneeded data noise) because I recently learned that new aircraft runway management systems ALSO rely on the transponder to participate.

    Until the pilots get straight with the rest of us on this issue, they’re not the good guys.

    • Tutched

      *I, and a growing number of aviation authorities, clearly, are pointing at… . Commas, still relevant.

  3. The number of fires in flight deck systems is, indeed, tremendously small. The number of planes which have disappeared due to lack of tracking data, however, is even smaller.

    Remember that we’re dealing in events so infrequent that it really is not entirely clear that there is a massive need for any of these changes. Well, at least to some it appears that way.

    • Tutched

      The fallback to statistical averages are such that the status quo should be maintained is not persuasive. It is statistically rare for homes to catch fire, and yet we invented, sell and buy fire extinguishers. Particularly in an industry charged with the full control of the fates of 239 paying, trusting passengers, tolerating vulnerabilities is the lower standard, not higher.

  4. Michael Planey

    Tutched,

    It is improper to paint the pilots as “not the good guys”. The comments I hear are based in utmost concern for safety of the aircraft and passengers. The ability to eliminate electrical power to a faulty component is a well-known and proven need to maintain safety.

    I have no idea about your level of expertise in this field, but you don’t speak for all aviation authorities on this matter. A persistent transponder isn’t the only solution and deserves proper scrutiny before rushing down that path.

    Seth, your comment sums up this debate perfectly. The industry is trying to solve a problem that occurs once in a decade at most. Remember also, that the transponder is highly unlikely to be the root cause of the loss of the aircraft, thus a persistent transponder would not have saved the flight — it would only have allowed for a more swift discovery of the aftermath.

    As for Li-ion batteries, they do represent a far greater safety issue than anything else in this discussion. That is why they are being restricted as cargo and investigated by the manufacturers and authorities to determine their suitability for air transport.

    • Tutched

      Michael, you sound like a Malaysian carefully opining so as to not seem so. Your pattern of speech and arguments give you away. Of course, I could be wrong or right.

      You are free to consider it “improper” all you like but your opinion is apropos of what? So what if I don’t speak for all aviation authorities, neither do you. Anyway.

      “A persistent transponder isn’t the only solution and deserves proper scrutiny before rushing down that path.” Rushing? You call a 13 year delay “rushing”? Do you work for the Vatican, by any chance? A persistent transponder is the quickest, easiest, cheapest and most responsive solution, resisted for emotional reasons alone.

      Your comment to Seth points out a fundamental flaw in the mindset of the Malaysian Minister of Defense.

      He also sees no value in knowing where the plane was and discounts knowledge of its location versus any human ability to stop the disaster in motion. It is astonishing that you appear to think that sparing millions and millions of dollars in cost, thousands of man-hours conducting the SAR, and last but not least the suffering of the anguished loved ones desperate to know their true fate is merely a trifle.

      That is why I think you’re here to defend H2O. He is in over his head and frankly should step down and let someone more qualified to take over.

      And you ignored the fact that modern management systems require a persistent transponder now. Oh that.

  5. Barry

    Michael

    I was not talking about LI-Ion batteries as cargo (but you have a valid point) but the Li-Ion batteries that are flight certified equipment on a 787. that are the main power source for the plane. Right now, if they catch fire the design is to contain the fire and vent gas overboard. Seems we could figure out a way to protect a transponder from causing further damage if it failed.

  6. Tom Brusehaver

    This gets so weird when non-pilots and non-avionics folks talk about these things.

    As they are now, transponders serve little purpose over the ocean. There is no ground or air tracking of them. 200 miles off shore, and there are no more radars to talk to them (TCAS is their only function). They do mess up, and report bad altitudes (often), and ATC will ask pilots to turn them off. (If you are flying in formation, ATC will want only one plane in the formation to have the transponder on, otherwise you get a mess, and yes airlines do fly promotion, and other events with multiple aircraft in formation).

    As a pilot, if I got something going wrong, I want to have a way to minimize the badness! If it means pulling breakers to get rid of something smoking or on fire, I want that option. If I pull the master I’ll do it, I want to be on the ground first.

    MH370 compared to AF447 is a really bad comparison. AF447 planned to be over the ocean. MH370 planned to fly over the sea for a few minutes then be over land again for most of the flight. Tracking is entirely different. Planning a trans-oceanic flight requires 2 long distance communication systems (usually HF and Satellite). To require all land based aircraft to have overwater communications seems quite onerous. Airlines like Southwest that flew only CONUS didn’t need rafts or ELTs or lots of other things that these requirements would impose on them (I know SWA will soon fly overwater, but most of their fleet will remain CONUS, but the international aircraft will have whatever ICAO requires).

    ADS-B, ADS-C and FANS should cover 99% of events where aircraft get lost. I don’t think there is any new regulation needed.

    • Tutched

      What is really unfortunate is when pilots and avionic insiders behave as if only they have the right to criticise the industry or demand safety improvements.

      Speaking directly to the case of MH370, a persistent transponder would have very much made the difference in at least finding it long ago. In the case of aviation in general, as I understand it, NextGen, ADS-B, wherein planes will keep tabs on each other’s position, irrespective of position over land or sea. As I understand it, please correct me if I’m wrong, but NextGen/ADS-B et al, relies on the transponder.

      As a pilot, if you continue to refuse to give up control over one of the two transponders, then you are an impediment to improvements, rather than a partner in progress. If fire is really what you fear, then refuse to fly lithium batteries in cargo. You fail to cite any authority that supports your concern that transponders are prone to fire. (Perhaps a better option is to add a 3rd in an inaccessible area with its own battery without your knowledge.)

      I’m not going to belabor the points previously made by others and I above because if you didn’t bother to read them, or you did but simply dismiss them as meaningless, then you still will, regardless.

      Tom if you have commented using your real name (by god man you are nuts), then I’ll make sure to ask if you are the pilot of my flight before I get on. If you haven’t, then I think I’ll just take a train.

  7. Jonathan Gill

    I don’t believe that MH370 ended up in the ocean. There would be something floating on the water. How foes a 777-300 just disappear.? They don’t!! I think the CIA has it.