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Airlines go slow on aircraft tracking

07 september 2015, 18:00
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A sand sculpture made by Indian sand artist Sudersan Pattnaik with a message of prayers for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370. ©AFP
A sand sculpture made by Indian sand artist Sudersan Pattnaik with a message of prayers for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370. ©AFP

Air France Flight 447 disappeared in 2009, Indonesia AirAsia Flight 8501 and Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went missing last year. The series of deadly accidents brought lack of full-time aircraft tracking into the spotlight and saw International Air Transport Association (IATA) and International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) come forward in December 2014 with a new standard requiring commercial aircraft to report their position every 15 minutes.

Malaysian Airlines and Singapore Airlines were the first to test the FlightTracker developed by SITA in an answer to the call made by ICAO and IATA. The tests were declared successful in February 2015.

Since then only 15 airlines have installed the fight tracking system although we are half way through to the deadline set by the flight regulators to November 2016, Tengrinews reports.

FlightTracker fuses together existing aircraft positioning sources including ADS-B, ATC radar, ACARS and ADS-C, to provide position data from aircraft to fill gaps in terrestrial coverage and give complete global tracking, even for oceanic routes. Besides, it extrapolates the data on the airline’s flight plans and can automatically generate alerts when the aircraft leaves its course.

Installation of the system requires no additional equipment and no hardware upgrades either in airplanes or on the ground. All it takes is a software update and personnel training. It takes three days, SITA said at the Air Transport IT Summit.

Nevertheless many air transport blue chips have been complaining that the deadline is too soon, and they are finding it had to meet it, IATA DG and CEO Tony Tyler said in June according to AviationBrief.com.

SITA does not disclose the cost of the upgrade, but since it uses only the existing equipment, it cannot be the cost issue that is preventing a majority of the companies from stepping up the safety of their flights. Aviation analyst Michael Denis confirmed that real-time tracking of commercial aircraft “isn’t a technical challenge, nor a financial challenge – it is only a governance one”. 

As for the governance part, besides the will of the international air traffic regulators and airlines, it also takes the will of local governments to adopt the changes into their national legislations to make the new standards work.

260 airlines are members of the IATA who are supposed to have a flight tracking solution in place before November 2016.

The 15 companies that are already using Flight Tracker include Air Asia India, Air Costa, Malaysia Airlines, Norwegian Air Shuttle, Oman Air, Royal Brunei and Singapore Airlines.

But they constitute a mere 6% of the number of the airlines up for the upgrade and hold a very modest portion of the passenger transportation market.

Airlines worldwide do admit that there is a need for better positioning of aircraft at all time and are willing to improve the security of their flights, but in words only, most of them, not in deeds.

Air Astana, the leading airlines in Kazakhstan, the 9th largest county in the world the size of Western Europe with a population of mere 17 million (this spells large remote areas), told Tengrinews that it supported IATA recommendations: “Air Astana will follow the recommendations of IATA to install the Flight Tracker system. At the moment the airlines is studying the market.”

It seems that the lukewarm excuse is true for most of the air carriers nowadays, they are all “studying the market” in hopes that IATA will move the deadline, or something else might come up. In the meanwhile they continue flying their passengers.

In fact, there is actually no market there to study – SITA is the only provider of a low-cost full-time tracking solution and there are no alternatives to consider.

Kazakhstan’s Air Astana does not do very many over the ocean flights, but they are plenty of air companies that do.

Does this mean that they are knowingly putting their passengers at risk while they are “studying the market”, or waiting for the deadline to be moved, or just hoping that they won’t be the ones to lose an airplane with 239 lives on board like Malaysia Airlines did?     

After the Indonesia AirAsia flight went missing in early 2014, Indonesia’s acting director general of transportation Djoko Murjatmodjo said: “We hope we can find the location of the plane as soon as possible, and we hope that God will give us guidance to find it.”

With 2015 drawing to the end, passengers of 94% of airlines still have only God to rely on for guidance and aircraft positioning in remote areas.

By Tatyana Kuzmina


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