UK satellite communications provider Inmarsat has offered free tracking to all aircraft equipped with its systems

Aviation industry to join forces to improve aircraft tracking

The international aviation industry has committed to finding solutions to improve aircraft tracking as the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) focuses on developing new regulations

The decision, prompted by the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in March this year, has been announced following a special meeting held in Montreal, Canada.

According to the ICAO, the United Nations agency developing guidelines related to safety and efficiency of civil aviation, members of the industry have agreed to work together to deliver new technology while the ICAO will work with its member states to reach consensus regarding new standards.

The ICAO has not given any formal timeline, however, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), representing the airliners, has already set up a special task force and hopes to reach first conclusions by the end of 2014.

“With reference to the specific issue of the disappearance of MH370, IATA is convening a task force of experts from airlines, aircraft manufacturers and systems makers, aviation regulatory bodies and search and rescue organisations focused on addressing aircraft tracking,” IATA’s spokesperson said to the E&T earlier this year.

“This task force is not focused on solving the cause of the loss of MH370. It is focused on finding ways to ensure that an aircraft never goes missing for an extended period of time and cannot be found.”

Prior to the Montreal meeting, British satellite operator Inmarsat offered free tracking to all aircraft already using its basic services and made proposals for a system automatically uploading black-box data into cloud in the case of some pre-defined potentially dangerous events.

The efforts to speed up development of next generation tracking systems has been welcomed by Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak

"In an age of smartphones and mobile Internet, real-time tracking of commercial airplanes is long overdue," he said in a signed article in the Wall Street Journal. He also called for a change in airplane communications systems that would prevent critical systems from being switched-off in mid-flight – the key problem that led to the Flight MH370 veering of course without the controllers having any notion of the situation.

"These changes may not have prevented the MH370 or Air France 447 tragedies," he said, referring to an Air France flight that crashed en route to Paris from Brazil in 2009. "But they would make it harder for an aircraft to simply disappear, and easier to find any aircraft that did."

Najib also accepted that Malaysian authorities delayed getting a search operation for MH370 under way after Boeing 777 disappeared from air traffic control screens on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing just over two months ago.

"The response time should and will be investigated," he said.

No trace of Flight MH370 has been found since it went missing on March 8, despite the most intensive search in commercial aviation history.

The ICAO, created in 1944, issues standards binding for its 191 member states, signatories of the Chicago Convention – the main treaty governing civil aviation. Instead of enforcing new regulations, the organisation prefers reaching consensus which frequently slows down implementation of new technologies and procedures.

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