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]