Off Track?

August is historically a quiet month for meetings. Not so at global aviation’s sovereign body ICAO where a summer of furious activity sadly yielded negligible results on developing global flight tracking standards.

The dog days of the northern hemisphere – with all their portents of madness and catastrophe – must have been especially potent this year, writes Aimée Turner.
In the wake of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines MH370 those charged with developing best practice to advance normal tracking procedures outside of terrestrial radar surveillance have seemingly gone against their own remit.
The performance based standard that everyone was expecting to apply by November 2016 looks to have been summarily shelved for two years under the advice of the Normal Aircraft Tracking Implementation Initiative (NATII). This convened in the third week of August to finalise a report concerning the implementation of proposed standards and recommended practices for aircraft tracking in routine operations.
It took that decision on the basis of a table top exercise held in Sydney, Australia in June together with the results of a four-month flight trial conducted earlier this year where several airlines had finessed their ADS-C tracking protocol over oceanic airspace.
It must be noted here that this flight trial was actually an independent initiative of Airservices Australia and satellite business Inmarsat and not part of any NATII-sponsored enterprise. Interestingly, this demonstrated that suitably equipped aircraft could comply with normal tracking requirements of 15 minutes or less with such confidence that Airservices has since gone on to adopt 14-minute ADS-C periodic reporting across the entire Australian FIR as a standard operating procedure.
Despite this, the NATII report urged ICAO’s Air Navigation Commission to consider a two-year delay in the 15-minute flight tracking standard from 2016 to 2018 when it met on September 22.
This delay was formulated on the basis of discussions by NATII participants who were asked to review six scenarios in an effort to identify ‘existing capabilities and opportunities for improvement’ on today’s flight tracking regime.
The table top exercise – something which generally results in a tangible action plan for continued improvement – arguably represented little more than backtracking since ICAO made the headlines six months ago when it announced it was to develop a performance-based standard for global aircraft tracking.
Following the deeply troubling disappearance of Flight MH370 which flew off its filed flight path into a radar black hole in March 2014, ICAO was under huge public pressure to start working towards a new tracking standard. It made that commitment at a high level safety conference in February on the basis of fulsome support from a task force led by the airline industry’s IATA whose chief concern at the time was that any new approach should be performance-based, not prescriptive.
“We cannot let another aircraft simply vanish.MH370 has highlighted the need to improve our tracking of aircraft in flight,” IATA chief Tony Tyler said at the time. “In a world where our every move seems to be tracked, there is disbelief both that an aircraft could simply disappear and that the flight data and cockpit voice recorders are so difficult to recover.”
The standard in question was to require commercial aircraft flying in non-surveilled airspace – oceanic, polar and remote regions – to report their position every 15 minutes by using a variety of cockpit technologies already available to most aircraft flying routinely outside radar cover.
Interestingly, that was only the first stage of a far more sophisticated tracking system planned by ICAO for the longer term called the Global Aeronautical Distress and Safety System or GADSS which envisages real-time tracking for aircraft in distress and far better ability to determine crash location.
“That [February] meeting concluded that global flight tracking should be pursued as a matter of urgency,” was how the ICAO Secretariat summarised the outcome of the safet y summit held earlier this year.
2NATII was soon established by ICAO which  went on to hold a workshop in May in Montreal where several major aircraft tracking technology companies and satellite service providers demonstrated their satellite tracking solutions and services.
They evidently failed to impress. NATII’s decision to put back the applicability date for the flight tracking standard is understood to be motivated by a combination of factors.
Firstly, a fear that any mandate on airlines to maintain tracking every 15 minutes at all times could lead to widespread disruption due to what is viewed as a risk of flight diversions and cancellations that would be caused by the tracking system going down – even though those flights could have operated normally otherwise.
Secondly, NATII members concluded that establishing flight tracking at a rate of 15 minutes or less could not be realistically achieved if it depended on obtaining pilot voice reports and that it would therefore mean that all aircraft would need to equip with an automated reporting system.
These have emerged as the two major factors which led the ICAO group to recommend that the compliance deadline for new standards is pushed back to a time by which airlines could realistically equip and reliability issues could be worked out.
“The second point is an issue mostly for short haul aircraft and some cargo aircraft that do not have satellite communications systems but carry out flights over areas outside ATC radar/ADS-B coverage such as the Mediterranean, Caribbean or South China seas and the Sahara, Siberia etc,” said one industry insider.
Equipage issues apart, the idea that current levels of reliability are deficient is disputed. Cpt Mary McMillan, vice president, safety and operational services at Inmarsat, argues that objections here are specious, citing the ample redundancy layers in modern aircraft communications infrastructure.
“Modern aircraft have multiple back-up communication systems, including HF so that’s just a non-issue,” she says. “Short haul aircraft flying more than 160 miles offshore are required to carry life rafts and other equipment associated with long-haul flights. And presumably, operators could always file an exemption from compliance with the specified provisions of the standard.”
She argues that the 15-minute tracking requirement actually represents no increase in reporting in airspace where lower than standard separation is being levied. “In many states, airlines have always had the responsibility for flight following in oceanic and remote airspace,” she says.
McMillan also points to the irony that when MH370 disappeared – presumably with all of its communications capability disabled, not just the long-range – it was actually equipped with the latest and most sophisticated communications technology.
“The fact is that the aircraft was on a route that did not require long-range surveillance and communications as it was under terrestrial control for most of its journey. It’s like using your GPS to go to the local grocery store. You just don’t need it under those circumstances.”
She insists the 15-minute flight tracking requirement needs to become a worldwide standard. “In actual fact, 14-minute reporting which enables 30NM/30NM separation is fast becoming the standard throughout the Pacific. If the North Atlantic was to adopt that in the same comprehensive way that would mean very few aircraft using oceanic airspace would be failing to fulfil the requirement.”
For McMillan, a 15-minute tracking standard applied globally carries huge benefits above and beyond simple positional intelligence.
Not only does Inmarsat’s FANS-1/A Automatic Dependent Surveillance Contract (ADS-C) reporting require no pilot interaction but it also has the benefit of reducing the controller’s workload as its recent trial conducted in Australian airspace confirmed, it reduces the number of overall exchanges – according to the separation standard that is being applied at any one time.
“Compared to the old days of 100NM along-track separation with position reporting every hour, satellite-based improvements in communication, navigation and surveillance has reduced separation distances enormously,” she says.
“Satellite providers are perceived as offering costly services but in point of fact they have effectively shrunk the bubble around the aircraft by over a third. That means satellite infrastructure has already safely quadrupled the available oceanic airspace and yet the cost to the airline industry for using that extra capacity is extremely low in comparison to the efficiency and safety benefits gained.”
The call by NATII members to postpone the 2016 deadline for the implementation of ICAO’s global flight tracking standard represents the desire of the aviation industry to consider all options available to achieve this important goal, according to Don Thoma, president and CEO of Aireon which is the developer of the world’s first space-based global air traffic surveillance system.
“It’s a fundamental objective of ICAO to increase both safety and efficiency of flights through the implementation of global flight tracking,” says Thoma who adds that many leading air navigation service providers (ANSP) have already mandated the use of ADS-B transponders to optimise airspace safety, create more direct routes and allow for an overall more capable system.
Major equipage programmes are indeed underway by airlines to support these mandates which Thoma says provides a significant opportunity to leverage both the ongoing investment in avionics and ground-based ADS-B infrastructure to support global flight tracking.
“We believe that the proposed delay in the implementation of the global flight tracking standard is recognition of the fact that in 2018, a space-based ADS-B surveillance system will be available to support global reception of ADS-B signals. This will enable a truly global flight tracking system without incremental investment by the airlines,” Thoma says.
Those ANSPs that are already customers of space-based ASD-B will have a live feed with one-second updates on the location of aircraft. ANSPs that do not have a solution that meets global flight tracking standards can alternatively sign up for space-based ADS-B, which could represent a cost-effective alternative.
“This affords a tremendous opportunity by ANSPs and airlines to improve the efficiency and safety of their airspace without additional avionics or infrastructure investments,” says Thoma.
So what is to be done? Should ICAO revise the standards to require airlines make optimal use of all existing onboard tracking technology or should global aviation’s sovereign body include in the standards a requirement that operators equip the aircraft with more tracking capabilities?
If it is the latter, airlines could be justified in protesting as a successful deployment of Aireon-type infrastructure would resolve the lack of surveillance without requiring any change to aircraft already equipped with 1090 MHz ADS-B Out systems.

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