Industry running out of excuses for lack of global aircraft tracking


As Indonesia halted its aerial search for Indonesia AirAsia flight QZ8501 for the night, the world asked again – how is it possible that, in 2014, we don’t immediately know the whereabouts of an aircraft that loses contact with air traffic control and whose ADS-B signal ends abruptly, in this case an A320 flying from Indonesia to Singapore with 162 lives on board?

How is it possible that Indonesia’s acting director general of transportation Djoko Murjatmodjo, in referencing the search for QZ8501 in the Java Sea, is quoted as saying, “We hope we can find the location of the plane as soon as possible, and we hope that God will give us guidance to find it.”

It beggars belief that one would rely on divine intervention to find an aircraft in an age of constant and ubiquitous data connectivity. Let’s not forget that, if an aircraft accident is survivable, knowing the precise whereabouts of the aircraft can be a matter of life or death for its occupants.

Many people hoped that these sorts of questions would be answered when the International Air Transport Association (IATA) convened an expert industry Aircraft Tracking Task Force (ATTF) in the wake of the tragic and mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines MH370.

But the ATTF’s recommendations to the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), tabled earlier this month, are lukewarm at best. A jetliner’s Aircraft Condition Monitoring System (ACMS) and Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) together already support limited real-time flight data monitoring on many – though certainly not all – aircraft today, so the ATTF recommended that airlines in the short-term “make use of what is already available in their fleets and areas of operations” and “look at the business case for upgrading equipment” to meet performance criteria outlined by the ATTF.

Indonesia AirAsia, a joint venture with Malaysia’s AirAsia, did not have ACARS. In a 2011 interview with me for my prior employer, Flightglobal, AirAsia and its Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) provider Flight Focus said the carrier was following a different technology path, and instead adopting Flight Focus’ ‘Platform’ EFB solution, which they said would feature an ‘always on’ configuration that enables duty dispatchers to constantly monitor position, have access to real-time flight performance parameters and communicate recommendations, company messages, the latest weather trends and/or Notams to crewmembers via the Iridium satellite network. However, AirAsia ultimately did not adopt the Flight Focus solution for QZ8501.

The ATTF’s medium term objectives – to be undertaken within three years – include monitoring new technologies as they become available, including ADS-B and broadly “space-based systems”, and in parallel working with manufacturers and other industry stakeholders to explore the possibility of making systems tamper proof, a measure already endorsed by Gulf carriers Emirates and Qatar Airways, but not by pilot unions.

Somewhat distressingly, during the task force meetings airlines could not agree on a strict timeframe for collectively implementing even the near-term recommendations. Assuring that airlines “are taking the tracking issue very seriously”, and that some already exceed the performance criteria, IATA director general and CEO Tony Tyler admitted during a 7 December media briefing in Geneva that, “For others, closing the gap may take more than a 12-month time line for every aircraft.”

Grilled by media after Tyler’s speech IATA senior VP safety and flight operations Captain Kevin Hiatt – who chaired the ATTF – explained, “A particular airline cannot operate without meeting certain performance or rules criteria, and…the government and regulators are responsible for making sure that if that airline is flying over areas that require position reporting or tracking that they are doing so. That’s all part of their operating certificate requirements.”

Pressed to describe what IATA was doing “between November 2011 and March of this year, when French regulators made precisely this recommendation” in reference to the Air France flight 447 crash and two-year search for the black box, Hiatt said the results of prior task force work included prescribing a 90-day battery life “and will be put into place to help find where the black boxes are”, but he added, “I can’t go back and tell you exactly what happened with Air France” and “can’t speak for IATA at that particular time”.

“I know that this task force looked very specifically about aircraft tracking.”

The ball is now in ICAO’s court to take this guidance further down the line, said Hiatt, “and maybe incorporate some parts or all” of the ATTF’s recommendations into its plan for a Global Aeronautical Distress and Safety System, or GADSS.

But government intervention appears increasingly likely. Reuters recently reported that the European Union is weighing up plans to impose flight-tracking unilaterally, but that airlines want the EU’s Commission to wait until ICAO tables its plan for GADSS. India’s Business Standard news agency reports that the Directorate General of Civil Aviation directed all airlines in India to ensure aircraft were equipped to communicate with ACARS or ADS-B, though the directive was considered largely advisory in nature.

Aviation analyst and consultant Michael Denis says real-time tracking of commercial aircraft “isn’t a technical challenge, nor a financial challenge – it is only a governance one”. He tells RGN, “Civil aviation authorities (CAAs) need the will to do what is needed.”

Denis adds that the disappearance of QZ8501 – which went off radar many hours ago – and both MH370 and AF447 before it, add credence to the notion that the industry should embrace real-time black box streaming of data to the cloud, at least in bursts. He’s not alone. Mary Schiavo, former Inspector General of the US DOT, says streaming data “is long overdue and black boxes are antiquated”.

Aviation industry pundits, observers and stakeholders from all over the world have considered the “cost/benefit analysis” of automatically transmitting black box data. And there is plenty of disagreement on the issue. Even today, pilots on the PPrune forum are bemoaning cost, with one suggesting, “It costs a huge amount of money to maintain a satellite link and to therefore transfer flight data in real time; I really doubt it is possible to do so economically. Factor in how many aircraft are in the sky and all of them maintaining satellite links… That is serious bandwidth.”

But that’s nonsense, one need not stream data continuously; trigger conditions could be agreed by the industry.

The ATTF’s work focused on aircraft tracking, not streaming solutions. “Data streaming is down the road – there are hurdles to storing it and making sense of it – but that doesn’t address your ‘finding the airplane’ issue. That simply addresses a different question,” IATA head of corporation communications, the Americas Perry Flint told RGN in April.

Perhaps it should be back on the table.

[Photo credit: Ole Simon via Wikimedia Commons]


  1. What additional information would you broadcast when ADS-B cuts out? Particularly knowing that it is likely a full power failure on the aircraft which causes such a scenario so triggering a further transmission might not be possible??

    How would streaming system performance details in this case change the S&R mission? What value would it really add?

    • Seth,

      A beacon with its own emergency power source would allow the search field to dramatically narrow. Furthermore, by transmitting independently the trajectory of the crash it could provide additional information for crash investigations.

    • Ian Hodgkiss

      I would envision the data stream to be broadcast from a separately powered (battery) device much like the black box carries its own power supply. Obviously, the days of the black box is now numbered with much better alternatives now available. If the plane goes down into really deep water then the signal is difficult to receive at the surface and as we saw with MH370, the battery failed before a definite fix on location could be gained which is why the search is continuing. The signal needs to be trackable for at least 60 days (location only). The stored data could be uplifted from the black box by electronic means rather than physical handling (?) or is that problematic when in deep water? It certainly shouldn’t be insurmountable if the data recorder is located on the surface of a high mountain for example. This should lead to faster collection of exactly why did the plane go down? In the Malaysian Airlines and Air Asia scenarios there are no survivors due to the location of the crash site so a rescue attempt is not the priority as much as finding out what happened. It appears that the MH370 crash was due to the plane being overwhelmed by a catastrophic event on board. After all it appeared to turn around to return to the nearest airfield in an emergency manoeuvre. MH17 was simply in a war zone (wrong place, wrong time), probably due to the flight path being the most direct. Air Asia in SF was pilot error and Air Asia yesterday was trying to outrun a major storm and was overwhelmed by up currents etc that tossed it into a position that the pilot couldn’t recover from. Am I glad I only go across the pond to New Zealand every so often! Does all this put me off flying? No – the sheer quantity of flights every single day and only four major events this year still makes it safer than crossing a busy road.

      • Ian, I wouldn’t say, “Obviously, the days of the black box is now numbered with much better alternatives now available” because its not about the technology, its about airlines not wanting to invest in anything that doesn’t have a positive ROIC.

        The airline lobbyists are in politicians and regulators offices constantly saying airlines can’t afford this, that or the other – and – it will cost jobs if they have to invest in new technology that isn’t revenue generating.

        What changes the equation is if governments taxed airlines (and aircraft manufacturers and insurers) to recover the SAR costs – then – the cost of better technology would reduce the cost of SAR which would create a win win win for everyone.

        • Ivan

          If aircraft safety and avoidance of the super high cost an aircraft loss are not very positive impact tools on ROIC, then I do not know what is!

  2. Ian Hodgkiss

    If every phone in the US, UK, Australia etc can be monitored in almost real time for texts, calls and web searches etc, then the relatively few aircraft flying in the air with tamper-proof tracking systems should be a doodle to implement. It’s about time the passengers got off their “cheap seats” mentality and demanded that pilots should never have the option of “hiding” the plane even if the onboard events require systematic shutdowns of electrical systems to isolate problems etc. A burst of encrypted data going to the cloud every 30 seconds need only cover the obvious states – heading, altitude, call sign – everything else should already be known about the aircraft, passengers on board, crew, fuel load and cargo from the information held by the company or last departure point. Seems screamingly simple to me but then, I only pay money for a safe and comfortable journey to somewhere else that can’t be reached any other way (being Australia is an island).

  3. Too much bandwidth to transmit aircraft GPS coordinates, airspeed, altitude, aircraft information, and a safety code as basic text to the world? I call “Beyond Stupid” on claims bandwidth is the problem.

    Otherwise it’d be impossible to stream video or e-mail w/ pictures to passengers!!!! Gogo can do it at 500–600 Kibibits per second! Mary and I and many others are requesting a mere 1 or 2 Kibibits – if that – to save lives. Imagine if a few passengers were stuck in the sea waiting for supplies to be dropped until pickup after one of these maritime tragedies but SAR forces were forced to waste valuable time searching for the crash site?

    Furthermore, more aircraft should have the ability to ditch easily in the water and more seaplanes should be built for search & rescue, but I digress…

    • Eric

      That’s a straw man argument I’m afraid. Airliners don’t ditch so that passengers can disembark into life rafts, they disintegrate on impact and the occupants die if they aren’t already dead.

      Any viable case for remote location data transmission (ie over water ) is about collecting bodies and debris for investigation and . It isn’t a safety issue.

  4. remy

    Well…less money and big spending on First class gizmos…more investments on R&D to create the safety mandatory technology we need now…
    How many lives are we going to losse before aviation takes back its responsability and promess.
    Flying us safely… ?… Or should me ask for a passengers global referundum need ?..Are you ready your seat a few more bucks to be sure you will kiss goodnight your kids and loved ones back home tonigjt ?… Respect please !!!

  5. Billie H. Vincent

    Mary: Given your experience I am surprised that you remarked about the Indonesian official’s reference to GOD/ALLAH. As Indonesia is an Islamic nation it is normal and obligatory to refer to ALLAH’s help in these instances.

  6. Secure, reliable and cost-effective aircraft tracking has been available to the airline industry for over a decade – from our company and at least 4 others since 2003. Bandwidth is not an issue, and with hardware costs of a once-off $1500 and operating costs of 35c per hour (!) the argument about the systems being too expensive is ludicrous.
    In 2008 I was invited to make a presentation to the Gulf Glught Safety Committee (Etihad, Emirates, Qatar etc) but they politely concluded that whilst the technology was affordable and undoubtably useful, they “did not lose aircraft”. Even after AF337, MH370 and now QZ8501, this attitude is still prevalent amongst airlines.
    With most aircraft tracking systems offering far more functionality than just tracking (ie mayday button, active in-flight monitoring, satellite communication, realtime operational info etc) there really is no excuse for airlines to be disregarding this technology.

  7. This is a CFO game…no real $$ value can be put on a solution thats not mandated by the regulator. Hence it becomes a low priority for the airlines and the ops & engg teams cant prove a business case. Andrew Burton is correct to say cost is not an issue any more; Iridium has also proven that low cost connectivity is available.
    The hard fact is the airlines dont see it as a “value” investment.

  8. Rolly

    Increased airline expenditure requires increased income, usually by way of fare increases.

    The airline industry is responding to the same forces that cause over loaded ferries, unsafe trucking practices, and individual failures to properly maintain their motor vehicles.

    They are certainly not making vast profits for their investors.

    If people want to travel more safely, then they must pay accordingly.

    As they say: “Flying is not inherantly dangerous – it is just rather unforgiving.” meaning that there are no safe ways to ‘cut corners’.

  9. Kay

    “It beggars belief that one would rely on divine intervention…”

    Actually, the context behind this is a complex cultural reference. Southeast Asians, not just Muslims, will often invoke that it is the will of a higher being or the fate of a person when events such as car accidents, major illnesses etc occur. As such, since the belief is that your destiny is out of your hands people will say things like ‘if God wills it’, or ‘with God’s guidance’. It’s this weird coping mentality that can sometimes translate into a degree of fatalism where people will not change their habits/mindset because they think they’re going to die anyway (see: seatbelts, motorcycle helmets, jaywalking, preventable diabetes).

    When Djoko says he’s hoping God will help them find the plane, it’s not that he’s entirely leaving it up to divine intervention but what he’s saying is completely in line with a cultural norm that seeks to reassure those that it’s fate and can’t be helped (shikata ga nai). I don’t particularly agree with this personally, but I understand where it’s coming from.

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  11. Ivan Hamilton

    This article is very relevant.

    How is it that Airlines can install the state-of-the-art entertainment systems, real-time internet access, in-flight telephone services to entertain passengers that are all largely superfluous to needs given the proliferation of carry-on hand held entertainment devises, yet cannot stretch themselves to use the very same equipment to ensure safety, security and permanent track-ability of the same aircraft?

    Surely, the events of September 11, 2001, AF447 eight years after that and MH370 5 years after that, should have brought about serious focus and improvement to the management and tracking of all civilian aircraft movements.

    One is left wondering … how an operator sitting in an office located in Langley, Virginia can control an un-piloted predatory drone aircraft operating thousands of miles away in Afghanistan; Apple, Google Play and others can provide real-time simulated games via the internet … how is it then that a large civilian aircraft can just disappear?

    The technology already existed in 2001 to enable permanent tamper-proof aircraft tracking, real-time uploading of black-box data and live communication with the flight deck … missing is worldwide political will and true political leadership.

  12. inawarminister

    “We hope we can find the location of the plane as soon as possible, and we hope that God will give us guidance to find it.”
    Really? I don’t see anything worth disagreeing in this statement. We Indonesians are a religious nation – all 6 “official” religions and myriad of other belief systems. What’s wrong with praying to God Almighty to help us with our search? There are secular, scientific systems being used in the search and there is no conflict in this regard.

  13. Kathy C

    Every sixty seconds every commercial aircraft is *required* to send an 8-byte string of data consisting of the craft’s identification, coordinates, heading, and speed.

    Assuming there are 10,000 aircraft in flight at one time continuously uploading data, that comes out to 80 MB. We’re talking something in the range of upper 3G or low 4G speed in order to ensure that the bearing and heading of all the commercial aircraft in the world can be known.

    If some airline execs are saying that it would be too much data or a strain on resources, they are idiots and shouldn’t be in their jobs.

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  17. Frank P.

    Bandwidth consumption my a**.
    Altitude: 99999 – AirSpeed: 999 – V.Speed: 9999 – Heading: 999 – Attitude 999 – Position: La99,9999,999 Lo99,999,999
    All together are less than 50 characters.
    Make it 100 to stream more data (engines, thrust, you-name-it)
    100 characters ~ 100 bytes = 800 bits

    The slowest satellite links are no less than 256 Kbps therefore sending those 800 bits will take only 3 seconds to arrive to the destination server.

    On a 16 hours flight the airplane will send 14,400 updates to a main server as a reason of 1 update every 4 seconds (considering the slowest data link) for a total of less than 100MBytes for a 16 hours flight.

    To put in perspective, one mobile phone connects 200,000 times and can consume 400 MBytes streaming youtube and connecting to facebook for 30 minutes. That’s 4 times an airplane critical data stream in 1/32 of the time of a transoceanic long haul.

    Then again, bandwidth my ars*.

  18. Martin Rothbaum

    Why not work together to publish a list of airlines and their current and planned tracking capabilities so that passengers can make informed choices? Perhaps a page on wikipedia would suffice.

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