Gulf carriers endorse taking tracking control away from pilots


Emirates airline boss Tim Clark’s suggestion that Malaysia Airlines flight 370 may not have ended in the Indian Ocean is certainly generating vigorous conversation on social media this week. But the chief executive’s assertion that aircraft must never be allowed to enter “a non-trackable situation” in the first place, should not be lost in the debate about the whereabouts of MH370 or the validity of the data being used in the search.

Clark’s comments are very much in sync with those made earlier this year by another Gulf carrier chief, Qatar Airways’ Akbar Al Baker. During IATA’s annual general meeting (AGM) in Doha, Al Baker noted that removing such control from the pilots is likely a necessary step for the IATA-led Aircraft Tracking Task Force (ATTF), which will deliver tracking recommendations to ICAO later than originally planned, possibly in December, as reported by Reuters.

“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,” said Al Baker at the AGM in June.

The tragedy has certainly been an eye-opener for Al Baker’s neighbor in Dubai, Tim Clark, who in an interview transcribed by Spiegel, said, “The transponders are under the control of the flight deck. These are tracking devices, aircraft identifiers that work in the secondary radar regime. If you turn off that transponder in a secondary radar regime, that particular airplane disappears from the radar screen. That should never be allowed to happen. Irrespective of when the pilot decides to disable the transponder, the aircraft should be able to be tracked.”

Asked how aircraft should be tracked if the transponder is disabled, Clark said, “… We must find systems to allow ACARS to continue uninterrupted, irrespective of who is controlling the aircraft. If you have that, with the satellite constellations that we have today even in remote ocean regions, we still have monitoring capability. So you don’t have to introduce additional tracking systems.”

Numerous companies have tabled flight tracking, aircraft surveillance and even black box streaming proposals to the ATTF, as it studies tracking options for the industry in the wake of the tragic disappearance of MH370. The draft report is understood to have been quietly shared amongst the airline community last week. Yet, the niggling question remains – what’s the point in implementing new tracking protocols if systems can be simply shut off?

Many pilots say the ability to eliminate electrical power to a faulty component is a proven need to maintain safety. A counterpoint to this view, previously expressed by an RGN reader, is that if pilots refuse to give up control over a transponder, they are “an impediment to improvements, rather than a partner in progress”. The issue is highly charged, though a growing number of industry stakeholders share Clark and Al Baker’s view that aircraft must be able to be tracked at all times.

Aireon, which is developing a system to track aircraft via space-based Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast (ADS-B), says it is confident IATA is carefully reviewing its proposal to provide a global emergency tracking solution as a public service to the aviation community, free-of-charge. “What sets other proposals apart from ours … is that all of those proposals will require investment in the fleet,” says Aireon VP of marketing and sales Cyriel Kronenburg.

ADS-B is automatic in that it requires no pilot or external input, and equipment will be mandatory by 2020 for aircraft operating in US airspace. “Because our primary business is surveillance, we wanted to make sure the task force was aware that there will be global surveillance [over Iridium’s NEXT satellite network] in 2018. If the task force chooses another direction, we’re happy with that, but airlines are very supportive of what we’re doing because it works with existing avionics. Everyone is looking for solution that doesn’t require another box on the aircraft,” says Kronenburg.

Yet pilots can still shut off ADS-B. “In the current structure, yes they can shut it off,” says Kronenburg. “It’s up to the regulators to come up with the recommendations. I’m confident that ICAO and IATA will address that problem, but that’s really nothing we can influence. I think if the problem is not addressed, nothing will change from the current system. The pilot will have ultimate responsibility and can switch off for safety reasons. That’s really a regulatory change that needs to happen.”

But the largest airline pilot union in the world does not support this stance. In a statement provided to RGN, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) says, “It is vitally important that pilots retain the ability to troubleshoot malfunctions and operate electrical devices in the cockpit as various situations dictate (to include turning equipment off), so they can continue to ensure the safe operation of the aircraft.”

“Denying pilots the ability to disable equipment when it is in the best interest of safe operation to do so potentially introduces unnecessary risk and jeopardizes the safety of passengers and crew.”