Solution to Missing Jets As Elusive as Malaysia Air Flight 370

The solution seemed simple after a Malaysia Air jet vanished last year over the Indian Ocean: expand the use of technology that keeps tabs on airliners to find them if they crash.

Almost a year after the jet disappeared, however, regulators, safety advocates and the airline industry still can’t agree on what to do.

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board has recommended tamper-proof devices to transmit the location of crashes, as well as beefed up flight data for investigators. An industry task force and the United Nations’ aviation arm plan to meet this week to consider proposed tracking options that, at least initially, don’t include that.

In many ways, the lack of agreement illustrates the complexity of a global aviation system that moves 9 million people every day over and between nations using 100,000 planes with varying technological capabilities.

“We’ve got an airplane missing. There’s a lot of controversy. There’s this push to do something,” said Thomas Haueter, the former chief of aviation investigations at the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. “But I think that we do need to step back.”

Not all carriers are equipped to send position reports via satellite and new technology may soon overtake the need for such reports. Some airlines also are questioning whether the first disappearance of a passenger flight in more than 50 years justifies the cost of a technology overhaul.

Costly Initiative

“If we spend a significant amount of money for each of the operators for tracking, is it at the expense of more needed safety initiatives?” asked John Cox, chief executive officer of aviation consulting company Safety Operating Systems. It’s hard to see the safety benefits of requiring more position reports, he said.

Inmarsat Plc, the satellite company that has been part of the team trying piece together the whereabouts of the Malaysia Air flight, said it’s a mistake to view tracking as simply a response to that one plane’s disappearance.

Increased position reporting may allow air-traffic agencies to bring planes closer together on ocean routes, where they are now kept as far as 50 miles (80 kilometers) apart, said Mary McMillan, vice president for aviation safety and operational services at London-based Inmarsat. Closer spacing allows airlines to fly more efficient routes and save fuel, she said.

Montreal Meeting

Aircraft-tracking proposals developed by a task force of industry groups will be considered at the UN International Civil Aviation Organization’s safety conference starting Monday in Montreal.

They include a goal for all planes to transmit their location at least once every 15 minutes during flights over oceans or remote regions, and once per minute during emergencies, according to an ICAO outline of the measures.

While the costs of increased tracking will vary widely depending on the airline, some carriers already have the technology and Inmarsat won’t charge for reports every 15 minutes, McMillan said in an interview.

The NTSB, which issued its own recommendations to the FAA on Jan. 22 for locating aircraft after accidents, wants to go even further by mandating tamper-resistant tracking technology and flight data transmissions during emergencies.

Easily Adopted

The ICAO Aircraft Tracking Task Force wanted to start with technology that is already aboard many long-range airliners and can be easily adopted, the group said in its report.

“You do what you can when you can,” said Perry Flint, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association, the trade group that helped lead the task force. “The fact is that no airline ever wants to have an airplane disappear again with no idea of what happened to it.”

The March 8 disappearance of Malaysian Airline System Bhd’s Flight 370 has proven to be one of the most confounding aviation incidents in history. All investigators know for sure is that the plane turned off its charted northerly course from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing and instead flew west toward the Indian Ocean with 239 people on board. Eleven months later, no physical trace of the aircraft has been found.

Rare Events

Thousands of flights a day fly outside the range of land-based radar, using different methods to report positions and ensure they don’t collide with other planes.

Many aircraft -- no one has polled airlines to determine the percentage -- already use a satellite datalink to notify controllers of their positions. Older planes without satellite connections or airlines that don’t want to pay subscription fees use long-range radios to manually report.

No one doubts the wisdom of seeking better ways to track airliners plying routes across the North Pole or the world’s oceans. The question, according to Haueter, Cox and others, is how best to accomplish that and to address the unique events of the missing Malaysia Air plane.

With the exception of the Malaysian flight, no passenger airliners have completely disappeared since a propeller-driven charter flight went missing in 1962 in the Pacific Ocean. And there are few examples in which additional tracking would have helped locate wreckage -- let alone prevented the crashes.

An Air France flight that went down in the Atlantic Ocean in 2009 took two years to find.

Better Priorities

Cox, of Safety Operating Systems, said he would prefer to see the focus on disappearing planes shifted to other more pressing safety issues. There were 72 fatal accidents killing 3,986 people on large jet-powered airliners from 2004 through 2013, according to Boeing Co. statistics. More than 80 percent of the deaths involved pilots losing control, striking the ground during routine flight or botched takeoffs and landings.

While ICAO’s position paper said improving tracking would trigger a “large financial cost” on industry and governments, it didn’t estimate what that would be. In addition to the costs of new equipment on planes, there may also be subscription fees.

At the same time, IATA has cautioned some of its airline members wouldn’t even be able to equip their planes with tracking devices within the one-year goal of the task force, according to Flint.

Tamper Proofing

Another factor that is complicating tracking proposals are the unique circumstances surrounding the Malaysia Air mystery.

The plane’s course changes appear deliberate and equipment that would have shown its path may have been shut off, according to Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.

The only clue to its whereabouts came from an Inmarsat satellite’s unsuccessful attempts to reach the plane. Australian authorities are helping Malaysia look for the Boeing 777-200ER along an arc in the Indian Ocean.

“If you do not make the system tamper-proof, you are not addressing what in the opinion of many experts is the likely scenario,” Steven Wallace, a former head of accident investigations at the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, said in an interview.

While the ICAO proposal includes a provision calling for designing a separate “autonomous” system to send a plane’s location in an emergency by 2018, it’s opposed by airlines and the Air Line Pilots Association union, which says flight crews should be able to cut power to equipment in an emergency.

Any action that doesn’t make tracking resistant to tampering “is not the solution,” Peter Goelz, a former managing director of the NTSB who is now a Washington-based industry consultant, said in an interview.

The industry task force for the UN committee that drew up the tracking proposal said more study was needed before such tamper-proof design changes should be required.

Iridium Satellites

Another reason to pause before imposing mandates on airlines is new technology that may soon make it easier to follow planes anywhere in the world.

Iridium Communications Inc. and NAV Canada, that country’s air-traffic control company, are building a satellite network that will track planes in real time just as radar on the ground does. The unit of McLean, Virginia-based Iridium that is building it, Aireon LLC, estimates the project will be completed in 2017.

Some airlines don’t want to install expensive satellite transmission systems if their planes will be tracked by a separate system within a few years, IATA’s Flint said.

It is just such factors that suggest waiting, rather than rushing toward a solution, make more sense, Haueter said.

“You need to take a look and say, OK, what can we do and what should we do? What are we truly trying to solve here and what’s the need?” he said.