Malaysia Airlines testing new SITA flight tracking solution


Malaysia Airlines is testing a new SITA flight tracking solution that will do more than simply address the rate and means of sending position reports from aircraft; it will ensure systems are in place at the carrier to process the reports and make the data more useful.

Explaining that last year’s disappearance of Malaysia Airlines MH370 and the 2009 crash of Air France 447 had shown a need for provisions requiring operators to determine the position of an aircraft “at any time in any location”, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) this month recommended that aircraft report their position every 15 minutes during normal operations, and every minute under an abnormal situation that may lead to an emergency phase.

This means that the airline cannot just depend on the systems of the Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) that survey the aircraft while it is in the airspace they manage but have no obligation to follow it outside their airspace. Rather, the airline needs to have a system that provides “take off to landing tracking” overlaying whatever is done locally by individual ANSPs (except probably for purely domestic flights).

Both MH370 and AF447 had Future Air Navigation System (FANS) avionics capable of automatic dependent surveillance-contract (ADS-C) that reports the current flight position via satellite or VHF data link to air traffic control, and were or should have been providing position reports at the rate of 15 minutes ICAO is proposing to mandate. But the lack of an airline system monitoring the ADS-C reports meant that it was not immediately clear they had stopped transmitting the expected data (although Air France has since established a system that would see that).

“Unless the airlines have systems to process the position reports that data will not be of very much use,” says SITA vice president AIRCOM Services Philip Clinch.

Enter the SITA AIRCOM Flight Tracker solution, which is now being trialled by Malaysia Airlines and, as previously reported, by Singapore Airlines.

SITA believes this solution provides the capabilities that will be required to meet the ICAO proposed requirement for operators to be able to determine the position of an aircraft at any time in any location. The solution “is an extra layer on top of our existing AIRCOM Server ACARS message handling system which is already used by about 80 airlines,” explains Clinch.

“We’re providing the network they use to obtain the data, and the system used to check where the aircraft is, but the airline gets the data immediately.”

Airlines will not need to make any modifications to their aircraft software because the AIRCOM Flight Tracker “simply uses a capability in the FANS avionics to accept position requests from airline systems that has always existed but which has been never or hardly ever used to my knowledge,” says the SITA executive. “The airline’s AIRCOM Flight Tracker automatically requests position reports from their aircraft’s FANS ADS-C avionics when it gets no data from other sources such as copies of data requested by ANSPs.”

When SITA releases the Flight Tracker module in the very near future it expects that many of the 80 airlines that already use SITA’s current AIRCOM Server as their ACARS message handling system will take the upgrade. But SITA also expects some of the airlines that do not use AIRCOM Server as their ACARS message handling system will use the version of the AIRCOM Flight Tracker that SITA hosts on its Air Transport Industry Cloud, thus “avoiding any need for the airline to buy its own systems”, says Clinch.

Most widebody aircraft flying long-haul carry the core technology to implement the type of tracking capability now on offer from SITA. All Boeing widebody aircraft delivered since 1995 and all Airbus widebody aircraft delivered since 2000 have FANS avionics and that probably means that in most oceanic airspace the proportion of passenger aircraft that are equipped reaches 80%. Some older widebody aircraft have also been retrofitted.

“The airlines currently doing trials of AIRCOM Flight Tracker are using FANS ADS-C so they are only using it with their FANS-equipped aircraft which for Singapore Airlines is all their aircraft but for Malaysian Airlines means only their long-haul fleet,” says Clinch. “However, the official AIRCOM Flight Tracker version that will be released in the next few weeks will also be able get position reports via VHF ACARS from the Flight Management Computers on short-haul aircraft that do not have FANS avionics like the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 737 fleet.”

Meanwhile, in addition to the ICAO recommendation requiring all airlines to have tracking systems on the ground, it will require changes to the systems that many airlines already use. Many current airline flight following systems simply extrapolate the position of an aircraft when they stop receiving position data so they give flight dispatchers practically no indication that there might be anything wrong, at least not immediately. “The required change will be to stop passively waiting for position data and instead to proactively seek position data and alerting when it is not obtainable,” notes Clinch.

Down the road, when abnormal and distress flight tracking triggers are agreed by the industry, the SITA AIRCOM Flight Tracker will be easily expandable to use this more frequently sent position data because it uses any position data available.

In addition to using existing technology for tracking, ICAO’s proposed requirement would mandate that airlines worldwide have to have flight dispatchers to follow aircraft, like the US airlines are already required to do by FAA rules. “Many countries let their airlines leave their pilots to deal with ATC along the route and do not require the airline to have dispatchers in the central office following every move their aircraft make worldwide,” says Clinch. So it seems likely that countries will require their airlines to have flight dispatchers.

Asked whether the target date for implementing ICAO’s proposed new tracking standard – November 2016 – is achievable for all airlines, Clinch says, “I do not have enough detail on the proposal to fully answer this question. For example, I saw an IATA statement saying the requirement ‘applies only to remote areas which are not covered by surveillance by air traffic services’ but I have not seen any ICAO document which specifically says that. From what I have seen of the ICAO proposed requirement, I expect that airlines could achieve worldwide compliance for aircraft with FANS and satellite communications avionics.”

He adds, “Airlines will face more of a challenge maintaining visibility of their single aisle aircraft that have no satellite communications avionics but fly across areas with little or no VHF or ATC ground infrastructure like the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Bay of Bengal, Sahara desert, Siberia, Andes mountains etc. Some position data is available in those areas from providers like SITA’s partner Flightaware, who use ADS-B receivers but in the very remote areas getting position data from aircraft without satellite communications systems may need to wait for the Aireon system, which, if it works as planned, will change the whole framework for the tracking question.”

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