On Track?

Exactly how airlines will be persuaded to comply with imminent industry proposals designed to improve aircraft tracking throughout the global fleet remains unclear, writes Aimée Turner.

A task force led by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) was charged earlier this year with making recommendations on how airlines should best adopt a near-term framework for real time aircraft tracking.

The move followed the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines MH370 which went missing on March 8 with 239 people on board en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

Supported by UN aviation body ICAO, IATA has spent several months leading an industry task force to agree near term measure in readiness for a universal system.

IATA chief Tony Tyler has underlined that – certainly in the short term – a performance-based approach would likely be the industry’s preferred course of action. This would allow airlines to fulfil any requirements for better position reporting in a variety of ways relying upon current levels of equipage and using existing procedures – essentially implementing the least costly and time-consuming fixes.

Layers

“We have multiple layers and capabilities for tracking aircraft already – from position reporting by the pilot to sophisticated satellite-based systems,” Tyler told an aviation law forum in September. “But we must recognise that the global fleet includes some aircraft with the most advanced technologies available on board as well as aircraft that are not so well-equipped.”

“And they must interact with air navigation service providers that also have a range of capabilities from ultra-sophisticated in high density airspace to more basic operations in line with market needs. So there is not one ‘best way’ to track aircraft. But it’s a challenge that we are addressing.”

Striking a cautious note, Tyler counselled that expectations must be ‘appropriate’ as to what the report will deliver. “This will not be a final document or a silver bullet solution,” he said.

Even so, though technically non-binding, the IATA-led task force’s conclusions and suggested technologies – which were to have been published at the end of September – will undoubtedly become de facto minimum requirements for all international airlines operating over water, isolated polar regions or other areas lacking ground-based radar coverage.

That September deadline was met at least in terms of presenting draft recommendations to ICAO although the document has yet to be published due to senior IATA management wanting to hold off until its 7 December board of governors meeting before it released a final version. Industry sources report that although completely updated, the latest raft of recommendations has not changed materially.

Definition

What has changed during the drafting of those recommendations however is the news that ICAO has come up with its own detailed definition of a global aeronautical distress and safety system called GADSS which addresses a whole range of issues not just tracking.

Speaking at the ATC Global conference in Beijing, Eurocontrol’s Henk Hof who chairs the ICAO ad-hoc working group on flight tracking spoke about UN aviation agency’s vision of improvements in surveillance and aircraft tracking technology.

This would build on IATA’s near-term performance-based approach for normal airline operations in readiness for universal flight tracking standards that would ensure full implementation around the world and uniform regulatory frameworks.

Hof said the ICAO working group had started by analysing key areas such as aircraft systems, air traffic management, search and rescue systems and information management before producing a number of high-level requirements for a future ‘system’ and a proposed concept of operation. He said the GADSS was progressing through the ICAO decision levels to the High Level Safety Conference in Montreal next year and that the concept will feature input from the ATTF.

Fixes

While near-term ‘quick fixes’ are expected to be implemented within one year, ultimately, the long term vision of universal, real-time tracking system will require aircraft to automatically report their position at least every 15 minutes in normal operations. In case of emergencies where aircraft go off course from their original filed flight paths, more frequent tracking will activate at intervals of at least once per minute.

If the situation worsens, autonomous distress tracking will be triggered using systems independent of aircraft systems or power supply. In the worst-case scenario, a flight recorder attached to the surface of the aircraft will automatically deploy.

How well these measures will be welcomed by a cash-strapped airline industry with little appetite for nice-to-have technologies – which on an extremely rare basis have the capability of helping locate a lost aircraft – remains unclear.

At a United States National Transportation Safety Board industry forum in October, it became increasingly evident that any global agreement on standards and regulations requiring further safety enhancements such as real time aircraft tracking will be hard won.

Trade-Off

Peggy Gilligan, one of the Federal Aviation Administration safety chiefs admitted that aircraft tracking among other safety technologies would be hard to justify under current federal cost-benefit trade-offs and that higher-priority initiatives offered more easily achievable – and quantifiable benefits.

That went against the sounds coming out of Europe where aviation safety regulators are understood to be preparing imminent rules for universal, real-time tracking of aircraft while Airbus, the European airframer admitted it was busy working on a roadmap to develop double combined recorders – one being deployable – for new-build A350 and A380 aircraft.

One industry insider mulled that perhaps the most interesting point of the current IATA and ICAO efforts on real time aircraft tracking will centre on how they will get their various recommendations implemented.

“IATA could relatively quickly make compliance with their tracking recommendations a requirement for airlines to retain IOSA certification,” he said. “For the ICAO member states to move the GADSS manual recommendations into enforceable national regulations will probably take a lot longer. Maybe the states are hoping that having the recommendations out there will show industry the way to go while detailed regulatory requirements go through definition and adoption.”

Hof tells Air Traffic Management: “The idea is indeed that the GADSS concept of operations shows the way to go but that industry assumes its responsibility especially in the short term. At some point in the future I expect standards and regulation to become effective to ensure that aircraft tracking is widely and consistently used.”

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