Airline meeting adjourns with earnest calls for flight tracking


DOHA: Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared on a flight to Beijing three months ago, but the missing airplane was very much present in conversations and in speeches at the International Air Transport Association’s annual general meeting earlier this week. And though one airline boss promised to challenge his fellow industry leaders to make swift changes, he appears to have had a last minute change-of-heart. The meeting ended with several earnest calls for action but no public fireworks.

“The loss of MH370 points us to an immediate need,” IATA chief Tony Tyler said in his speech and reiterated later to a group of reporters. “A large commercial airliner going missing is unprecedented and it must not happen again.”

IATA has linked its efforts to those of the International Civil Aviation Organization, assembling the IATA Aircraft Tracking Task Force at ICAO’s Montreal Headquarters in May and sharing data with the UN aviation organization. In a briefing during the IATA conference, senior vice president of safety and operations, Kevin Hiatt promised airlines would be presented with a short list of possible solutions by the end of 2014 – well before any solutions are expected from ICAO.

“We are more nimble,” than ICAO Hiatt said. Still, the task force won’t be giving airlines a final solution, or insisting they do anything at all. “The task force will not come out with a proscriptive outcome. We will come up with options to present to the air carriers,” because one solution may not work for all airlines.

Some of the ideas already under consideration were solicited and vetted by ICAO and include:

  • Increasing the frequency of location reporting associated with the (FANS) Future Air Navigation System used by airlines for dynamic routing of airliners.
  • Expanding the use of the (OPTIMI)  Oceanic Position Tracking Improvement and Monitoring Initiative to every ten minutes or every one minute in case of an unexpected event
  • Scheduling regular automatic position messages to be transmitted via ACARS
  • Embedding tracking devices in the airplane separate from the cockpit avionics to provide real-time flight information via satellite to a ground station.

Only the last proposal, a separate off-the-flight deck tracker, addresses the other troubling issue arising from MH370, the loss of all data and communication from the airplane for unknown reasons. Since it is possible that someone in the cockpit disabled the plane’s ACARS system, the task force must also decide if the proposed solution should be tamper-proof.

“OEMs say that potentially they can make the system tamper proof,” Hiatt said, adding that based on his experience as a pilot, there were pros and cons.  “In the past with the way airplanes have been designed, if I had a piece of equipment and I wanted to stop it from smoking or if it was on fire,” I wouldn’t want to take the disconnect ability away from the pilot.

Until more is known about what happened on board MH370, whether a change is warranted can sometimes seems like a philosophical question. Certainly there are differences of opinion among the airline bosses. In the CEO Forum panel, the moderator, CNN’s Richard Quest pushed the leaders of Aeromexico, Cathy Pacific, jetBlue, International Airlines Group and Qatar on the subject. While all promised the cost of tracking airplanes would not slow industry progress, at times their words reflected hesitation.

“Let’s not panic and let’s not overreact,” Aeromexico’s Andres Conesa Labastida said. “Let’s have a solution that’s feasible and economically makes sense.”  While IAG’s Willie Walsh suggested that it may not be possible to fix the problem on a global scale.

“The industry can’t say today that we’ll have this covered on every single flight globally,” he said.

IATA’s own statistics show that the greatest growth in long haul travel is happening in parts of the world where extended overwater operations and flights over the pole are common; Asia Pacific the Middle East and South America. This means that an increasing number of airplanes are taking off and flying out of range of radar for long periods of time – yet another incentive for airlines to find a solution.

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