Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Airline Industry Warms to Costly Real-Time Tracking After Flight 370: WSJ

The Wall Street Journal
By Andy Pasztor And Jon Ostrower
April 1, 2014 7:29 p.m. ET

The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines  Flight 370 is prompting leaders of the global airline industry to warm up to a safety measure they long have resisted as too expensive: real-time satellite tracking of practically all airliners.

With the multinational hunt for the Boeing  777 in its fourth week amid frustratingly little progress, the head of the industry's primary international trade group on Tuesday acknowledged widespread public disbelief about the inability to locate the plane, and said the industry needs to respond.

"In a world where our every move seems to be tracked," said Tony Tyler, chief executive of the International Air Transport Association, "we cannot let another aircraft simply disappear."

In some cases, real-time tracking could cost up to several hundred thousand dollars per plane, just for installation of onboard equipment, industry officials say.

Mr. Tyler, speaking at an industry conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, urged "urgent action and careful analysis" by regulators and carriers to develop and implement world-wide standards for transmitting the position of commercial aircraft regardless of where they fly.

Investigators believe Flight 370, which was carrying 239 people, went down in the southern Indian Ocean on March 8 after flying thousands of miles off course. No wreckage has been found, and in Australia on Tuesday, the former military chief leading the search off the country's western coast, sought to tamp down expectations that any debris from the plane would be found in the coming days.

"We are working from a very uncertain starting point," Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston said. Search teams were scouring a poorly mapped swath of sea about the size of Ireland.

Authorities say they likely have as little as a week left before the plane's black boxes stop emitting signals that could help searchers locate them deep underwater.

"We don't know what altitude the aircraft was traveling at," Mr. Houston said. "We don't really know what speed it was going at other than some information that gives us some idea of the speed. It is a very inexact science."

IATA plans to convene a task force of experts, including representatives of the International Civil Aviation Organization, an arm of the United Nations that sets global standards. The group is scheduled to report its conclusions by December—an unusually quick turnaround for such an undertaking.

Full-time tracking from space has been championed for years by air-safety experts as well as by equipment suppliers and commercial-satellite operators that stand to make money providing connectivity. "The airline industry needs to step up" and "somebody needs to assert leadership in this vital area," said Alan Diehl, a former senior commercial-accident investigator and U.S. military safety official.

Such broadband connectivity also could serve as the backbone for related moves to automatically transmit a range of data about aircraft performance, flight commands and cockpit automation in the event of an emergency. The initiative gained momentum after the 2009 crash of an Air France  Airbus A330 in the Atlantic Ocean.

Mr. Tyler said "some progress was made," but now "that must be accelerated" after Flight 370's disappearance.

Mr. Tyler acknowledged the complexity and expense of setting up reliable satellite tracking everywhere, warning against succumbing to "hastily prepared sales pitches or regional solutions." Still, his speech endorsed action, which was unusual because airlines and regulators typically wait until they know broadly what happened in a particular air accident before moving to act on lessons learned.

Pilots, who often have resisted the close tracking of flight information because they fear airlines could use it to punish them, also are backing the need for technology upgrades. "Technology is available that can significantly enhance the ability to locate a missing aircraft, and this technology must become the standard across the industry," the International Federation of Air Line Pilots' Associations said on Monday.

Boeing Co., which manufactured the Malaysian 777-200ER, also has indicated support. A spokesman said the company "will participate in and support the effort to find effective and efficient ways to enhance global tracking."

The latest generation aircraft, like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, are already set up at delivery to airlines to periodically report the report position, speed and altitude as part of its satellite uplink.

The Flight Safety Foundation, a nonprofit global safety advocacy organization, called for an international symposium of industry officials and regulators to discuss enhanced location tracking and real-time transmission of aircraft-operations data, particularly in emergency situations. "That data can help unlock mysteries, leading to timely safety improvements and more focused search and rescue missions," said David McMillan, chairman of the foundation's board of governors.

Airlines for America, the trade association representing U.S. airlines, said in an email that it is "premature for us to speculate and/or discuss potential changes to safety and security procedures."

Technology already exists for periodic satellite tracking. Airlines such as Air France and Deutsche Lufthansa AG transmit position, speed and altitude data every 10 minutes through an automated reporting system known as Acars. Flight 370 was capable of transmitting Acars messages, but investigators believe the system was disabled or deactivated.before disappearing from civilian radar

Around 10,000 aircraft, or 90% of widebody jets flying long routes, are capable of reporting position with the same technology that was fitted to the missing Malaysian 777-200ER, said Chris McLaughlin, senior vice president at Inmarsat PLC, and another 5,000 have the latest generation system that could potentially be used to stream data about the aircraft.

New technology designed to improve air-traffic management will likely make tracking even easier, enabling world-wide coverage including remote oceans and other swaths of the globe that have no radar coverage.

Next year, Aireon LLC, a joint venture between Iridium Communications Inc. and air traffic control providers from four countries, plan to launch the first of 72 satellites to enable the new air traffic technology, known as ADS-B, said Ashley Eames, spokeswoman for Virginia-based Aireon said. The ADS-B data streamed to orbiting satellites will provide detailed GPS, altitude and speed data. The system is expected to be fully operational in 2017, she said.

—Robert Wall and Rachel Pannett  contributed to this article.

Source:   http://online.wsj.com