Jet-Tracking Debate Persists Months After Malaysian Airline Loss

By Alan Levin | October 7, 2014

New generations of satellite networks and airborne technology are making the prospect of tracking airline flights around the globe a near-term reality.

There’s just one issue: This equipment wouldn’t have prevented a plane like Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 from disappearing because pilots can turn it off from the cockpit.

As the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board today opens a forum in Washington on the latest aircraft locater technology, a debate is playing out between pilots, safety advocates and others over how best to respond to one of the greatest flight mysteries in history.

The loss of the plane in March without any direct evidence about what happened threatens to undermine the confidence of airline travelers and raises “serious concerns” among NTSB investigators, acting Chairman Christopher Hart said in opening remarks.

“Those concerns are far from academic,” Hart said. “Without the data, the lessons of the accident may remain forever unknown, because the circumstances of the accident may remain forever uncertain.”

The answer is simple, according to Rick Castaldo, a consultant and former Federal Aviation Administration engineer who favors making such equipment tamper-proof, said in an interview.

“It’s not rocket science,” Castaldo said. “There is no good reason ever” for pilots to disable tracking devices, as also occurred when terrorists took over flights on Sept. 11, he said.

‘Greater Risk’

Improved electronics have removed the risks of short- circuiting, which was the reason pilots were given the authority to shut down equipment, he said.

Pilots want to retain the ability to troubleshoot electrical devices in the cockpit so they can better manage emergencies occasionally leading to airborne fires, Sean Cassidy, vice president and safety chief of the Air Line Pilots Association, said in an interview.

Too little is known about what happened on Flight 370 on March 8 to justify changing the decades-old safety rules of the cockpit, Cassidy said.

“If you deny pilots onboard the aircraft the ability to deal with these malfunctions as needed, then you’re introducing a greater risk factor into the system,” he said.

The Malaysian Airline System Bhd. plane carrying 239 people disappeared on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Searchers are still looking for it in the southern Indian Ocean. After no trace of wreckage was found, groups including the International Air Transport Association trade group said in press releases the situation couldn’t be tolerated and began work on proposals to improve aircraft tracking. The IATA working group’s proposals are due by the end of the year.

New Technology

The European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates airlines, is also developing proposed new standards for aircraft tracking, Thomas Mickler, the group’s representative in Washington, said at the forum.

While the FAA is watching those efforts, it has higher priorities for improving safety, Margaret Gilligan, the agency’s safety chief, said at the forum.

Currently, airliners over the poles and oceans report their own position and can’t be tracked. It took almost two years to find the wreckage of Air France Flight 447, which went down in the Atlantic Ocean in 2009.

A confluence of new aircraft technology and improving satellite transmissions have made real-time tracking possible anywhere, Vernon Ellingstad, the former director of the NTSB’s Office of Research and Engineering, said in an interview.

Data Bursts

“We’ve got more places that can receive this and more capabilities to send it out and to capture it than we did just a few years ago,” Ellingstad said.

The possibilities go beyond tracking, he said. Aircraft are capable of sending bursts of data in emergencies, so investigators won’t have to wait until locating aircraft crash- proof recorders, he said. Other devices holding flight data are designed to fly off a plane in a crash and float until recovery.

In just a few years, an entire network of satellites designed to track planes anywhere in the world will also be operational, Ellingstad said.

Iridium Communications Inc., a McLean, Virginia-satellite company, and NAV CANADA, a non-profit corporation overseeing air traffic in Canada, have formed a joint venture to monitor aircraft from space, Aireon LLC. The system, which will be more accurate than ground-based radar, will be operating as soon as 2018, according to a company press release.

Most of these systems would have done no good finding Flight 370.

Inmarsat’s Satellite

After a Malaysian controller instructed the Malaysian pilot to contact Vietnam’s air-traffic system, a device known as a transponder, which identifies a plane to radars on the ground and to Aireon’s satellites, stopped functioning, according to a summary of the case by the Australian Transport Safety Board.

Another system known as Acars, which automatically transmitted the plane’s position periodically to the airline via an Inmarsat Plc satellite, also stopped working.

Because there wasn’t a distress call and the plane was steered off course for hours, investigators have concluded the tracking systems were deliberately shut off, according to Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.

The plane was later tracked to a region of the southern Indian Ocean using radio transmissions with Inmarsat’s satellite, according to the Australian investigation agency. While communications with the satellite were switched off, the system kept sending limited transmissions to the plane. A renewed Australian-led search for the wreckage is beginning in the area where they suspect it crashed.

‘Diverse Opinions’

Though regulators should be sure to evaluate potential unforeseen safety risks, it makes sense that pilots shouldn’t be able to shut off radio links to tracking systems, Ellingstad said.

Kevin Hiatt, IATA’s senior vice president for safety and flight operations, said June 3 at a conference in Doha the tracking task force is studying such technology. The issue has prompted “diverse opinions” in the industry, he said.

IATA is working with the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization, an arm of the United Nations, to develop aircraft tracking recommendations.

ALPA, North America’s largest pilot’s union, supports technology helping airlines follow planes and locate crash sites, Cassidy said. A debate over whether to make them tamper- proof would slow progress, he said.

“There is a lot of frustration about the pace of progress right now,” he said. “Anything that delays it would be unfortunate.”

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