The notion that a $250 million, state-of-the-art Boeing 777-200ER could vanish without a trace seemed ludicrous until March 8, when Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 (MH370) dropped from Malaysian radar screens in the middle of the night over the Gulf of Thailand.

At first incomprehensible, the reality of loss hit home when after 30, 60, 100 days, no trace of the aircraft had been found despite a massive search, estimated to be the most expensive to date. A new $60 million underwater mapping survey over the next year on a curved swath of nearly 20,000 sq. nm in the southern Indian Ocean may yield similarly hollow results.

Within the airline industry, the vacuum of information about the causes of the disappearance has spawned fears of waning public confidence that evoked memories of the two-year search for Air France 447’s (AF447) resting place and launched a call for immediate voluntary improvements in how airlines keep track of their aircraft. Longer term, the industry is counting on the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to mandate upgrades that may include real-time streaming data from the aircraft’s “black boxes” when an anomaly takes place. French authorities in the 2012 final report on AF447 recommended streaming data and deployable emergency locator transmitters as potential solutions to long, expensive searches.

“As far as the industry goes, one event is too many,” says Kevin Hiatt, senior vice president for safety and flight operations at the International Air Transportation Association (IATA). “We’ve drawn the line in the sand and said we’re going to come up with some options right now for the near term to provide additional ways to appease the flying public that it is safe to be there.”

IATA’s resolve manifested itself in the creation of the Aircraft Tracking Task Force (ATTF) on April 1 as the airline industry came together for an annual event that had been scheduled to take place in Thailand, but was later moved to Kuala Lumpur due to political strife. “A lot of press put together two things that don’t belong together: that if we had had streaming data we would not have had the accident,” says Nancy Graham, director of ICAO’s Air Navigation Bureau, who attended the meeting. “That’s not true. But unfortunately in a region hungry for information, that was a very hard thing to unwind.”

The need for streaming data—basic flight parameters, downlinked at a high rate via satellite links during an emergency—was a key lesson learned in the 23-month search for AF447’s flight data and cockpit voice recorders, where the search zone was a 40-nm radius around the final transmitted position. For MH370, the search zone is now 17,500 sq. nm. ICAO’s rule changes after the AF447 accident include longer battery life for the existing underwater locator beacons on the “black boxes” and new low-frequency locators on the devices—but not streaming data or deployable flight data recorders.

ICAO is taking renewed interest in streaming data, but it is taking baby steps, developing rules that will dictate how all airlines must track their aircraft, including an “early notice” of and response to abnormal flight behavior. Graham is spearheading the effort, which could take two years or more.

Until then, IATA has agreed that its members will voluntarily start tracking with existing onboard equipment and a new batch of procedures being developed by the ATTF. The details of exactly who needs to begin tracking and how they should do it are being closely held by IATA, with initial results to be presented to ICAO in September. ATTF members include ICAO, the Flight Safety Foundation, Boeing, Airbus, Bombardier and Embraer.

Hiatt, who is chairman of the five-member steering group overseeing the ATTF, says there are three “work streams” underway. One group is developing a concept of operations (Conops) for global flight-tracking; another is examining the current state of flight-tracking to determine “where the gaps are;” and a third is coming up with the minimum requirements that any tracking system should meet. “Out of those three work streams, we’ll be able to produce a report that will address most of everything that everybody has ideas about,” Hiatt says. 

He stresses that IATA’s actions on enhanced global aircraft-tracking are meant to go into effect quickly once the ATTF’s work is confirmed at IATA’s board of governors meeting in December and subsequently presented to its airline members. IATA’s 240 member airlines account for 84% of global air traffic. ICAO will hold a “high-level safety conference” in February, where Graham anticipates the ATTF’s conops will be approved as part of a broader effort to draft performance-based international standards that she estimates can be done in two years, a rapid pace for a new ICAO rule. 

Beyond that, ICAO is investigating midterm initiatives that include space-based surveillance (see page 42), improving search-and-rescue notifications (see page 44), accurately defining an accident location (see page 46), and gaining additional spectrum for “safety of life” aviation services. Long-term upgrades ICAO is considering include cloud-based remote storage of flight information (see page 47).

Industry appears to be split as to what IATA will recommend in September. “There are two opinions that are out there,” says Matt Bradley, president of streaming data provider, Flyht Aerospace Solutions. “Some say [the ATTF will present] watered-down recommendations that basically say you’ve got to be able to track your aircraft or be able to contact your aircraft within a certain amount of time, and the industry will be given years to implement that. Others say this is a wake-up call for the industry and we’re going to see some very strong recommendations that say you have to positively verify when your aircraft is not reporting when it should otherwise be reporting.”

A key part of ATTF’s work to date has been to find out the state of affairs in airline tracking, which is required by ICAO but not well-defined. “All airlines should know where their aircraft are, but all airlines don’t,” says Graham. “There are reasons for that. Some are technology, some are procedural.”

Unlike surveillance, which means knowing an aircraft’s position accurately enough to provide air traffic control (ATC) separation services, tracking refers to knowing the relative location or state of an airline’s assets, and practices vary significantly across company and geography. In oceanic regions, it is often the case that neither the airline nor ATC has adequate situational awareness. Although 80% of widebody aircraft flying long-haul oceanic routes are equipped with the Future Air Navigation Systems (FANS) to supply ATC with automatic dependent surveillance-contract (ADS-C) position reports over satellite networks using the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (Acars) (see graphic), a number of airlines have not activated the service (nor are they required to). 

In some cases, routes do not yet have ATC systems that can accept the data. Both MH370 and AF447 were ADS-C-equipped. However, in MH370’s case, the aircraft was under radar control when it dropped from radar screens, negating the need for remote position reporting. When controllers do receive ADS-C reports, the same information is not routed to airline dispatchers, for whom remote communications are usually tied to airline operational control (AOC) data—engine reports, weather information and arrival gates—that are passed back and forth over Acars. 

A small number of airlines are buying independent third-party systems, like Flyht’s automatic flight information reporting system, for sending position reports, anomaly alerts and other operational data directly to the AOC through the Iridium satellite network.

For airlines using ADS-C, the system generally transmits its position to controllers over the Inmarsat or Iridium networks through SITA and Arinc distribution channels every 10 min., which translates to a granularity of about 80 nm between known locations at airline-type cruise speeds. Search-and-rescue teams want a final position of 4 nm or less, which translates to a position report around every 30 sec. or less. ADS‑C can be set up to do this, automatically increasing its reporting rate to as often as once per second when predefined anomaly conditions occur. Satellite data provider Inmarsat says it offers “free” ADS-C reports every 15 min., and faster reporting (every 5-10 min.) for about $10 per flight, “far below potential fuel savings” gained by the closer separation standards that ATC can provide with the enhanced surveillance.

The perfectly legal alternative to ADS-C for surveillance is legacy voice communications at select way points using high-frequency (HF) radios that bounce signals off the atmosphere to land-based antennas, a system that is often noisy and leads to missed reports. Before working at Flyht, Bradley used to fly Airbus A330s from New York to Ghana, making voice position reports over HF radio every 60-90 min. 

“If you didn’t make that position report, because you had a bad HF link or for some reason you couldn’t make contact, you could be [out of communication] 2-3 hr.,” he says. “It’s not so rare that you wouldn’t have those position reports.” He advocates for “positive tracking” by airlines, a feature Flyht is providing to 30 airline customers. “When something that is supposed to happen doesn’t happen, or when something that isn’t supposed to happen, happens, it puts the information right in front of the dispatcher.”

The ATTF’s Conops and minimum system performance requirements will by all accounts address those types of questions with a palette of options that carriers can voluntarily implement based on their equipment, operations and the regions in which they fly. It is not clear if any options being proposed would have helped in the case of MH370, as onboard communications systems were either shut down or failed. “We do know there are differences right now in the world with carriers who are tracking their own aircraft as far as how often,” says Hiatt. “We’re focusing more on the broad base to make sure that aircraft are being tracked, and then we’ll get into the granularity of options of how often or when they need to be tracked, whether only during a non-normal event or throughout the entire regime of the flight.” 


Listen Avionics & Safety Editor John Croft, Executive Editor Jim Mathews and ATW’s Aaron Karp discuss what is needed to overcome the challenges of global flight-tracking in our latest Check 6 podcast:


Road Map to Global Flight-Tracking Standards 2014

March 8 • MH370 disappears from radar over the Gulf of Thailand en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

March 31-April 2 • International Air Transport Association (IATA) convenes Operations Conference in Kuala Lumpur and creates Aircraft Tracking Task Force (ATTF) to focus on identifying near-term options for global tracking of aircraft, including a concept of operations (Conops).

May 12-13 • International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) holds Special Meeting for Global Flight Tracking in Montreal and reaches consensus to track all airline aircraft. • IATA agrees to early voluntary implementation; ICAO to develop standards in parallel, while developing global standard on a parallel track.

May 26-27 • International Telecommunications Union (ITU) holds Expert Dialogue on real-time monitoring of flight data in Kuala Lumpur.
• ITU asked to provide necessary spectrum allocations for emerging flight-data monitoring needs and work with ICAO to implement it.

June 11-13 • IATA ATTF holds first formal meeting and launches effort to define current state of flight tracking with member and non-member airlines, air navigation service providers.

September • IATA ATTF to present preliminary Conops for global flight tracking to ICAO in Montreal.

December • IATA communicates ATTF findings to member airlines.

2015 February • ICAO to hold high-level safety meeting in Montreal to approve Conops from ATTF and move forward in developing a global tracking standard.

2016 • ICAO to publish global flight-tracking standards.