In the public’s view, there are only two choices facing the airlines following the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370: Act now to ensure aircraft can always be tracked, everywhere; or cave in to the airlines’ moan that it is too costly and face the consequences the next time an aircraft vanishes.

But it does not have to be black or white. There are steps the aviation industry can and should take to address aircraft tracking and the other concern resurrected by MH370: the streaming of flight data.

The first step is to ensure the aircraft’s transponder cannot be turned off in flight, or that there is a tamper-proof backup. The technical feasibility must be assured, but the costs should not be too onerous.

Second is to embrace space-based Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) to track those aircraft with operating transponders, wherever they may be. This would come at relatively little cost to the airlines, as they are already being required to fit ADS-B to fly within Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere.

Iridium and a group of air navigation service providers led by Nav Canada have formed Aireon to provide global ADS-B tracking using payloads hosted on every one of the satellite operator’s 81 Iridium Next spacecraft. Space-based ADS-B is to be operational by the end of 2017.

This step could pay for itself. Iridium says airlines are pushing for space-based ADS-B because the enhanced surveillance that it will provide will enable fuel-saving routes through oceanic and remote airspace, giving carriers an immediate cost benefit from equipage that is so far lacking with terrestrial ADS-B.

The third step will take time, and be costly, but looks increasingly necessary. And that is to equip aircraft so cockpit crews can alert their airlines when something untoward occurs, then stream flight data via satellite to the ground so it is available if the aircraft is lost.

This will require a global agreement via the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) on what should be transmitted, when, to whom and by what means. However, ICAO is never able to move quickly. The equipment for alerting and streaming exists today, so it would be best if regulators specified the need, rather than mandating the equipment. 

With broadband connectivity coming to aviation (see page 44), more options for cost-effective data streaming are becoming available. The industry should use these to become ever more safe—and responsive to pubic concerns.