Thursday, April 17, 2014

Inmarsat to Offer Airlines Free Tracking Service: Company Helped Narrow Search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

The Wall Street Journal

By  Jon Ostrower

April 17, 2014 10:24 a.m. ET

LONDON—Satellite communications company Inmarsat  PLC plans to offer basic tracking services free of charge to airlines, its chairman said, in the strongest sign yet of the aerospace industry's intentions to enhance monitoring abilities for commercial jets after the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

Airlines have long resisted making satellite tracking routine, in part because of the costs. But since Flight 370's disappearance on March 8, airlines and international safety organizations have shown new interest in such efforts.

For Inmarsat's offer to become a reality, any ultimate industry standards for satellite tracking would have to encompass its communications satellites. Andrew Sukawaty, Inmarsat's executive chairman, said in an interview that he has told regulatory authorities that if the company is part of a global tracking service, it would offer its tracking free to ease the cost of acceptance.

Inmarsat estimates that offering the service free would mean forgoing $10 million to $15 million in revenue annually, but "This is such small potatoes against what we're providing" commercially, Mr. Sukawaty said. Inmarsat collected $1.25 billion in revenue in 2013.

If its system is used, Inmarsat would cover any required costs to upgrade its network to support the service, Mr. Sukawaty said. But airlines would still have to cover the cost of additional hardware—and its installation—to periodically transmit their aircrafts' position, speed and altitude, he said. Inmarsat doesn't sell that equipment.

Inmarsat has been central to the hunt for Flight 370 after the company developed and refined a method for analyzing digital transmissions from the plane that has allowed international searchers to focus their hunt in an area of the southern Indian Ocean. No physical trace of the missing Boeing 777-200ER has yet been found.

Commercial jets currently are tracked mainly using ground-based radar. Calls to use additional systems intensified after the crash of Air France 447 in the Atlantic Ocean in 2009, in which searchers quickly recovered some aircraft debris but needed nearly two years to locate the jet's so-called black boxes. Despite recommendations from aviation authorities, however, no changes were made to how jetliners are monitored.

It is unclear how exactly a global system of satellite tracking of jetliners would be developed and implemented. The International Air Transport Association has convened a task force to produce conclusions by the end of 2014 for implementing a tracking system.

Mr. Sukawaty said mandatory tracking for maritime operations offers a guide. Today, dedicated transmitters onboard ships, sold by third-party companies, operate safety services at no charge on Inmarsat's satellite network as part of the Global Maritime Distress and Signal System.

One thorny issue for airlines is potential disagreement between carriers that already pay to track their fleets and those potentially unwilling to adopt a global mandate. Airlines such as Air France and Deutsche Lufthansa AG  already pay to embed position data in other data transmissions that report the status of the airplane for maintenance and operational purposes.

And Mr. Sukawaty said some state-owned airlines are considered extensions of air forces and may be reluctant to incorporate global tracking for national-security reasons.