Onus is on regulatory authorities to enact global aircraft tracking

As the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) deliberates on the details of a mandate to track aircraft around the globe it is abundantly clear that the onus is now on regulatory authorities to take the proverbial bull by the horns to quickly enact meaningful change.

ICAO members are currently meeting in Montreal to, among other things, discuss the development of a future Global Aeronautical Distress Safety System (GADSS) that aims to enhance the capability to “track aircraft, locate an accident site and retrieve cockpit voice recorder (CVR) and flight data recorder (FDR) data”. In advance of the conference multiple reports said ICAO would call for tracking of aircraft every 15 minutes under normal circumstances, and more regularly if a deviation from the filed flight plan is observed or abnormal conditions aboard the aircraft transpire.

“These deviations could be measured and used as a trigger; the 7700 emergency transponder squawk code, for example. That’s not a big deal. You have to mandate it of course,” says aviation industry consultant Bob Mann.

That the aviation industry is even still dithering on the issue of global tracking due to cost concerns is disappointing, but not surprising. After all, the trade association that represents the world’s airlines, IATA, tabled limp tracking recommendations to ICAO, after failing to collectively agree to equip all aircraft with available tracking hardware within a 12-month timeframe, even though many member airlines already exceed suggested performance criteria.

Sadly, ICAO isn’t seen as being terribly effective on these sorts of issues either. “Why settle for 15-minute position updates? That gives you a 125 mile radius from some prior point which gives you a 50,000 sq mile search area. Once-per-minute position reports get you down to an 8 mile radius and 200 sq mile search area,” notes Mann. “You’ve got to look at ICAO as the lowest common denominator, which isn’t very proactive on anything. That’s what permits the present practice to be acceptable. It will ultimately be up to the regulatory authorities where life isn’t cheap to make recommendations.”

Aviation analyst Michael Denis agrees, adding “I’ve never looked at ICAO as a driving force on aircraft safety of flight issues – more like an ATC coordinator facilitator. In the end, the civil aviation authorities (CAAs) have the rule of law and thus have to issue ADs to mandate anything. Maybe the CAAs are looking for cover from ICAO so they can say, ‘they made us mandate reporting and expensive new equipment/supplemental type certificates (STCs)’.” To wit, the European Union has already said it would move quickly to implement a tracking mandate, and Malaysia today signaled its intent to do the samereports Reuters.

With a string of disasters highlighting the need for global aircraft tracking, and indeed triggered transmissions of black box streaming – Air France flight 447 in 2009, Malaysia Airlines MH370 and AirAsia QZ8501 last year – airlines can ill afford another tragedy that calls into question why they haven’t yet acted. In this mobile, social, vocal world of ours, it is imperative that carriers instill confidence in passengers that an aircraft can’t simply disappear, and that we’re not reliant on the recovery of physical black boxes in vast, deep oceans to understand what went wrong. “How is quality of service and safety of service not part of the passenger experience,” Denis asks rhetorically.

Position reporting is one of those capabilities that already exists on many aircraft, and can operate via VHF as well as Inmarsat and Iridium satellite networks. “If we wanted to enhance the level of flight tracking and monitoring, all we have to do is up the curiosity of the contracts we’re actually sending,” notes Mary McMillan, VP aviation safety and operational services for Inmarsat, which is entering into a trial with one of the world’s leading Air Navigation Service Providers in order to demonstrate the efficacy of using enhanced Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Contract (ADS-C) position reporting as a means of enhancing surveillance and flight tracking.

Using the ADS-C application – which provides automatic reports from an aircraft system to an Air Traffic Services Unit – in concert with ACARS, but expanding the ADS-C request capability into the hands of airlines is a core feature of the SITA OnAir AIRCOM Server Flight Tracker Solution. AIRCOM gives airlines the aptitude to request flight location and see their aircraft from takeoff to landing, which is traditionally handled only by air traffic control. Two airlines are now trialling the solution, confirms Ian Dawkins, CEO of SITA OnAir, the new business organization created by SITA to bring all products linked to e-enabled aircraft under one roof.

Inmarsat’s McMillan suggests that the presence of a flight tracking solution likely would not have made a big difference in the recovery of the AirAsia QZ8501 black boxes in the Java Sea recently. “That position information was known through secondary surveillance radar so essentially flight tracking information is going to give you the same information as the radar picture. The only thing it might possibly have been able to produce would have been a couple more of those position reports based on a trigger of immediate tracking,” McMillan tells RGN.

If black box data could have been streamed once a deviation was observed, however, it “would allow us to understand some of the contributory causes sooner and in some instances may help determine where to look in terms of flight characteristics. We would have a good idea of the contributing causes that triggered a catastrophic upset,” she says, noting however that, “It was two weeks before finding the AirAsia recorders as opposed to the two years it took us to find Air France [447].”

Inmarsat is known to be offering a ‘black box in the cloud’ service, under which – on the back of certain defined trigger events (such as an unapproved course deviation) – historic and real-time FDR and CVR information can be streamed off an aircraft to defined aviation safety recipients. “So the ‘black box in the cloud’ is essentially taking information already being recorded by the airplane’s physical recorder located in the empennage and transmitting that information via VHF or via satellite, depending on where it is. That’s the capability that we’re actually discussing in relation to the AirAsia flight and Malaysia MH370 and other incidents we’ve seen in the last few months. Rather than waiting for the recorders to be found in the event of an accident, ‘black box in a cloud’ is about transmitting that data in real time,” explains McMillan.

There are hurdles to overcome, to be sure. “First there is the technical issue of how to transmit massive amounts of data using our current capability. We can do that over VHF, but once you start to use satellite, we’re using our I-3 and I-4 satellite constellations in order to enable that service and it’s actually available and happening today in certain respects. Boeing is streaming data right now to monitor some parameters associated with the 787 in light of the issues it had early on with battery temperatures… and there are several components on a General Electric engine, for instance, that sends information to GE to monitor in real time the health of the engine. So if certain components are exceeding normal parameters, they can have that component on the ground when the aircraft lands to replace or fix it. So we’re already using the service today. But with the [recent] events that have happened, what is being proposed is to actually radically up the amount of information we’d like to transmit on a normal basis or use a trigger to trigger some real-time streaming of certain specified parameters,” says McMillan.

This sort of service was widely discussed in the wake of AF447, but the capacity didn’t exist to handle that sort of data in 2009, notes Mann. “We’re at a different point now and have aircraft being delivered like the 787 that constantly stream a fair amount of information. So there really is no technological limit to it.”

McMillan believes that political issues will prove a hindrance to widespread adoption in the near term, however. “The use of the data is a very sensitive issue [for airlines], so the rules and governance around the use of the data will be an issue pretty hotly contested, so the fact it is technologically feasible is just one of the issues.” This sensitivity extends to the pilots’ unions. “I’m sure [ALPA] would have a pretty emphatic stance position on this so there will be a lot of hurdles to overcome before we see widespread adoptions of this capability. It will be an issue for ICAO and regulators to help us adopt a process that makes sense and one that is politically acceptable.”

Denis notes that some progressive airlines “will buck this trend and like Ford and Volvo – market quality and safety first”. Indeed, Qatar Airways recently made headlines when its CEO Akbar Al Baker revealed the carrier is working with a supplier on real-time streaming of aircraft black box data to the ground. Though he declined to reveal the chosen solution, Al Baker said, “Once this has been proven and all the bugs have been cleared, Qatar, I hope, will be the first airline to introduce this in all of airplanes.”