Air travel is a very safe mode of travel, with few accidents and a trend line that points to increasing safety year by year. The following chart shows worldwide airline fatalities per million passengers from 1976 through 2014. The trend line shows that safety is continuing to improve for the industry as a whole.
But accidents do happen, and when they do, it makes news, and the question is why. We have been conditioned with 24-hour news networks, the Internet, and technology to expect “instant information” and “instant gratification” rather than patiently wait for answers, as in the past. The problem is that when an aircraft goes down using current technology, it often takes quite a while to find the “black boxes”.
The recent crash of Egyptair 804 happened more than a week ago, and the pings from “black boxes” have just been detected at considerable depth in the Mediterranean Sea. Combining this incident with Malaysian 370, which crashed March 8, 2014 and whose hereabouts are still unknown, and Air France 447, which crashed deep in the Atlantic and took two years to recover the flight data and cockpit voice recorders, there is a groundswell of support for improving technology on aircraft to track them full time.
When an airplane is over land, terrestrial radar and transponders provide the ability to track an aircraft in real time, and air traffic control systems can “see” the aircraft, its speed, and its altitude inflight. But over water transcontinental flights are not covered by radar systems and require alternative methods for tracking.
Today, many airlines have communication technologies on-board, with satellite communication capability to provide Internet, television, and entertainment for passengers. Newer aircraft are being equipped with advanced maintenance systems, which utilize satellite communications to send data to monitor engines and other components, and provide advanced warning should performance degrade and maintenance be required. Couldn’t we simply piggy-back on those capabilities to provide real-time tracking of aircraft?
And even older systems, such as ACARS, a ground to aircraft communications system for the flight deck, has capabilities for satellite communications over water. But this system isn’t as yet fully automated for that task, as it is primarily an aircraft to company messaging service. Nonetheless, it provides another potential channel to piggy-back.
So the short answer to whether we can piggy-back on existing systems is, yes. The difficulties surround the basic questions: who should get the position reports, when should they be sent, where do they need to be sent (once beyond radar coverage), what should they contain, and how should they be securely transmitted?
Herein lies the rub. Governments and regulatory agencies would love to stick their noses into the situation, as that is their purview. Airlines would prefer to keep as much information as possible internal, particularly if it piggy-backs on communications or maintenance channels. Passengers feel that if they can communicate by e-mail, the aircraft should at least be able to message its position. Independent flight tracking systems want accurate information as well, and already provide reports on available flight information from ATC and other sources. There are a lot of voices that are not all yet on the same page.
Several industry players have offered services. Intelsat is offering to track aircraft for $1 per flight, in the hopes of aircraft manufacturers and airlines choosing their communications systems and gear for other applications. Innovative companies like FLYHT in Calgary, Alberta have developed interesting technologies, including position reporting systems, with other advanced applications, and those systems are now being offered as an option on Airbus aircraft.
Fundamentally, these systems must obtain information from the flight computer or avionics systems (GPS coordinates, speed, altitude) and transmit those data points in a consistent format that can be read by those on the ground, either at the airline headquarters or by a regulatory agency. For first responders to an offshore incident, like the Coast Guard, it would also be nice to have the capability to receive the last pieces of data from an aircraft in trouble and pinpoint the descent path in the event of a crash.
The Need for Compromise
But that means all of the systems need to have the same structure and standards, and therein lies another problem. Who will create the standard, and whose system will be the one chosen? ICAO, a United Nations body, is the most likely organization to promulgate such a standard. But its composition is not only major airlines from North America, Europe, and the Middle East, but also smaller airlines from Africa and the developing world that may not be able to afford the new technology.
The result, being a body politic, is to weaken or defer requirements to sub-optimal levels, enabling some carriers to report once every 15 minutes (even though that can mean a 100+ mile search radius at cruising speeds) rather than require real-time telemetry.
This also begs the question of future technologies for air traffic control. Today’s ATC is ground based. Tomorrow’s will certainly be satellite-based, with the ability to track aircraft via more sophisticated computers and project potential conflicts. But whose technology, and what standards should be chosen?
In the past, the US would have led the way with proposals to modernize ATC and introduce new capabilities. But the dysfunctional FAA, for whom technology decisions drag out to the point that new technology is already obsolete once introduced, is not providing leadership. The airlines themselves would rather not spend the money, particularly those with strong safety records, and likely have allies among those airlines which lack the financial resources to do so.
The aircraft OEMs aren’t stepping forward, and haven’t yet gotten together to develop a standard for data transmission. Politically, are COMAC, Irkut and Sukhoi going to go along with what Airbus, Boeing, Bombardier and Embraer develop? Perhaps not if geopolitics enter the issue. And what of the military, who will also need to monitor airspace. Will all aircraft be required to transmit data, with access to all, when in non-warfare modes? As we have seen over the Baltic, both Russian and US spy aircraft are flying with transponders turned off. A collision would be no surprise.
Now, let’s further complicate the issue with drones, which represent a potential hazard for civil aviation. Should we be tracking drones with similar technology? This would likely cost more than a small drone itself.
The Bottom Line
Solving the problem of real-time position reporting requires leadership. But who is going to step up? Perhaps Airbus, Boeing, Bombardier and Embraer need to join forces and promulgate a standard that all of their avionics and Satcom vendors could adopt, making life easier. If the big four agreed, and pulled in Honeywell, Rockwell-Collins and Thales, the big three in avionics, a committee could quickly develop the protocols required for real-time position reporting. Technologically, this isn’t rocket science. But politically, it’s a trip to Mars.