The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the UN body with representation from 191 countries, last week came up with a recommendation for tracking of commercial aircraft once every 15 minutes in the wake of Malaysian 370, Air France 447 and other incidents in which aircraft have been lost at sea. With a report every 15 minutes, an aircraft cruising at a normal speed of 470 knots would be between 0 and 117 nautical miles from the last reporting point, depending on timing. This would narrow the potential search area for aircraft, which in the case of MH370, includes thousands of square miles of ocean, with little hope that the aircraft will ever be found.
The guidelines from ICAO would be scheduled to be implemented in November 2016, and these recommendations are typically adopted by member countries regulatory agencies, including the FAA, after approval.
Our view is that this recommendation falls short of what is truly needed. Automated position reporting is routinely performed today over land, where radar coverage is fairly complete and Air Traffic Control can see aircraft, but fails over wide stretches of ocean, where radar coverage is lacking. For most airlines, all that would be needed is to activate existing satellite tracking systems to provide location report, or at the worst, report in by radio every fifteen minutes. But we believe 15 minutes is too long an interval, particularly if existing technology could provide updates every minute, which would narrow a search area considerably.
Most wide-body commercial aircraft, including the lost MH370, have communications capabilities, such as ADS-C that communicates with satellites. However, subscriptions are an expense, and Malaysian airlines did not opt for that service. That service could easily be configured to provide 15 minute, or even one minute position reports should it be required.
ICAO also recommended that in an emergency, the reporting be updated to one minute. However, at that point, the pilot’s full attention should be on flying the aircraft and maintaining safety, not reporting by radio or changing a transmission frequency. We believe that second part of the proposal seems infeasible without some sort of advanced automation.
Further complicating the issue is that large portions of Africa lack either radar coverage or even normal communications, and most narrow-body aircraft operating in that region do not have the capability for satellite communications. This creates difficulties operating within certain parts of Africa.
While 15 minutes is better than nothing, we believe the industry can and should do better. We believe ICAO should institute a standard of one-minute automated position reporting, and let the market determine the best solution to solve the problem before 2018. Perhaps the in-flight-entertainment systems that rely on satellite communication could be tuned to provide the position reporting, thus offering competition in the marketplace with avionics manufacturers and satcom providers, thus bringing down costs.
There is a substantial difference between a 14 minute search area of 109 nautical miles than a one minute search area of 7.8 nautical miles. As a frequent trans-oceanic passenger, I’d prefer the latter, just in case. Once again, we see lip service given to safety, when technology to ensure it remains available and goes unused. It seems everyone but the passenger is represented at an ICAO conclave.