For many people, one of the enduring mysteries of the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 is just how a modern jumbo jet can vanish into the night without a trace. Investigators have said the airplane is probably in the deep part of the Indian Ocean west of Australia, but where?
To help prevent a reprise of the tragedy, Inmarsat Plc will begin offering a free tracking service for roughly 11,000 commercial airplanes equipped with its equipment. Inmarsat is the London-based satellite operator that directed searchers to a vast region northwest of Perth based on its analysis of electronic “pings” its equipment aboard the Boeing 777 sent an Inmarsat satellite on March 8. The new service is aimed at giving Inmarsat a foothold in what is likely to be a new revenue source for satellite companies, complementing the growing business of airplane communications for entertainment and performance monitoring.
The company says its 10 satellites will gather location, speed, heading, and altitude data four times per hour. If there is a flight issue, the company would be able quickly to determine a flight’s location. One of the primary challenges in locating Malaysian Flight MH370 is that it’s thought to have flown for more than five hours undetected by radar coverage, leaving an enormous potential search area and families of the 239 passengers with no definitive answers.
The missing flight “is a wake-up call to the industry to improve safety,” Inmarsat Chief Executive Officer Rupert Pearce said today in a telephone interview. “There’s clearly a stimulus arising out of these tragic incidents.”
The announcement was timed to coordinate with a two-day meeting (pdf) of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in Montreal to discuss real-time tracking of flights. The airline industry’s global trade group, the International Air Transport Association, says its working group on flight tracking will have a report and recommendations for the industry by year’s end, coordinated with ICAO officials. “We cannot let another aircraft simply vanish,” IATA Director General Tony Tyler said last month. European regulators have proposed tripling the useful duration, to 90 days, of the electronic locator signals transmitted by airplanes’ data and voice recorders. Current devices lose power after about 30 days.
Inmarsat was founded in 1979 by the International Maritime Organization to help ships establish an emergency link regardless of their location. Inmarsat transmits SOS signals for free and says its aircraft tracking offer is similar to that service. The company estimates that the tracking would cost about $3 million annually, but it plans to spend millions more for upgrades to its network for tracking.
Robert Mann, an airline industry analyst, called the news “crass opportunism” in a Twitter post Monday. In an e-mail, he criticized the company for its effort to keep rival Iridium Communications out of the maritime industry and said airlines are likely to wait for new regulatory rules before signing on with satellite tracking. “Since—so far, at least—no passengers are refusing to fly due to lack of real-time tracking, I anticipate the industry’s reaction will be to wait and see what is mandated and over what time horizon, which is what they usually do,” Mann said.
Beyond the complimentary tracking, Inmarsat hopes to sell airlines additional services, such as flight data and voice-recording downloads that would be triggered by certain events in flight, such as an unapproved course deviation or a dramatic altitude change. The company also sells a range of other communications products, such as passenger Internet connectivity and messaging systems that transmit aircraft and engine performance data to airlines and equipment manufacturers. Pearce said satellite tracking systems can be made so that flight crews or others on the plane cannot disable them.
Airplanes that have been introduced only in the past 15 years or so are capable of flying long ranges virtually anywhere, for nearly 24 hours nonstop. In many respects, aircraft technical capabilities have outpaced the industry and regulatory protocols for monitoring their whereabouts. Satellite is the logical answer for tracking flights over remote areas, but the generally high costs have deterred most airlines from real-time tracking on the longest routes.
Yet after the deep-sea disappearance of two jumbo jets, including the 2009 crash of an Air France Airbus A330 into the Atlantic Ocean five years ago, airlines have concluded that they need to prevent any future vanishings. In its investigation of the Air France crash, French authorities recommended that ICAO, a United Nations-chartered organization, study whether to make transmissions of flight location data mandatory. “Let’s take the debate away from cost and toward implementation,” Pearce says.