Aircraft tracking and protection of planes above conflict zones discussed at safety conference of UN's International Civil Aviation Organisation

Malaysia Airlines disasters focus of UN aviation safety meeting

The UN’s Civil Aviation Organisation has urged airliners to install available real-time aircraft-tracking technology in their aircraft to prevent another MH370 scenario.

Aircraft tracking is one of the main issues debated at the UN ICAO’s safety conference taking place in Montreal between 2 and 5 February.

"We know that there are technologies available today," said Nancy Graham, director of ICAO's Air Navigation Bureau.

Britain, China and the USA backed the ICAO proposals for new tracking guidelines that would apply from November 2016, an accelerated timetable in the often laborious process of aviation regulation.

The proposal requires aircraft to send their position at least every 15 minutes, or more often in case of emergency. It allows each state the freedom to decide how and when to implement the recommendations.

Multiple telecommunication satellite operators are providing competing aircraft tracking services including UK-based Inmarsat and American Iridium. However, some airliners have complained about the cost they would incur by implementing those technologies.

The conference met as the first anniversary of the as yet unexplained disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 looms. The plane, a Boeing 777, disappeared on 8 March 2014 after diverting from its original route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing for reasons unknown. The accident, believed to have killed all 239 people aboard, exposed shortcomings in current aircraft-tracking technology and spurred what has since become the most massive and most expansive search and rescue operation in the history of aviation.

The ICAO conference also discussed safety of passenger planes crossing conflict zones, in light of another deadly accident that hit Malaysia Airlines last year – the shooting down of flight MH17 over Ukraine.

"All the same problems which we already have are still going to be there, in terms of different countries having different messages and the airlines not really knowing who to listen to," said Charlie Leocha, chairman of US-based consumer advocacy group Travelers United.

The fallout from MH17 has brought to the surface one of the key contradictions of modern aviation: the system of seamless global standards developed by ICAO over the last 70 years can conflict with individual states' sovereignty.

The management of airspace dates back to decisions taken after two world wars when it was decided sovereignty extended upwards to the skies, which would not be open like high seas.

Now, ICAO and airlines are wrestling with how to share information about perceived threats en route without infringing the rights of other states to open or close their own airspace.

ICAO is proposing a scheme for pooling advice to pilots, though it falls short of demands by airlines for the sharing of genuine but carefully screened intelligence information.

"I suspect this is the most that's possible right now," said Angela Gittens, head of Airports Council International.

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