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Airlines want tracking technology to prevent another MH370

File photo: The missing Malaysia Airlines 777 airliner, photographed in Australia in 2010.

Story highlights

  • Aviation taskforce wants to ensure planes cannot be "lost" in the future
  • Tracking, not data streaming, is the answer, says head of IATA
  • Air France already uses technology to enable frequent tracking updates

Making sure another plane is never "lost" again is the immediate priority for the airline industry, according to Tony Tyler CEO of the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

The group has set up a taskforce comprised of airlines, pilots, flight safety organizations and flight tracking and navigation service providers to try and ensure a mystery like flight MH370 is not repeated.

"We're going to be focusing on the tracking of aircraft and not streaming of data," said Tyler at the group's annual meeting, in Doha, Qatar, adding that it will deliver a report in September recommending what changes airlines should take, although they won't be mandatory.

The streaming of data is not the focus, said Tyler, as tracking is "the most urgent first step and can be done relatively easily."

"There are a lot more issues that come into play when it comes into the streaming of data. If you start having streaming from 100,000 flights a day, you're going to end up with masses of data and that may be manageable or may be not manageable."

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Currently a mix of radar, satellite and voice communications tracks aircraft. A one-size-fits-all tracking solution might not work, cautions Kevin Hiatt, senior vice president for Safety and Flight Operations for IATA.

While the technology to track aircraft better is already available there is an equipment issue.

"Not all aircraft are equipped the same, it's just like an automobile, there are different options you can fit in the aircraft, so we'll explore what options are currently onboard and see how it can be used to fill this gap.

"Maybe some carriers already have what they need to start and there might be some that have absolutely nothing and have to start."

Many airline CEOs have committed to improving tracking no matter the cost.

"We're already doing quite a lot," said Willie Walsh, CEO of International Airlines Group.

"We routinely send position messages with our ACARS messages and that's something we've done for many years an something we'll continue to do. We send ACARS messages every 30 minutes.

"By this time next year (the airline industry) will have cracked this."

ACARS is a data link for sending messages between planes and ground facilities that was developed in the 1970s.

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Just five years ago Air France suffered a tragedy when flight AF447 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris.

The accident brought to public attention that in some locations, such as over ocean areas, the precise location of an aircraft is not known all the time.

"We don't totally track aircraft as there are areas of the world that don't have coverage that allow us to track them with what we would conventionally think of as a GPS or some type a ping that has a geographic location," said Hiatt.

However, after the incident, the airline, independent of any industry-wide report, made changes to how its planes communicate their location and can be found in an emergency.

One was improving the battery life of the black box recorder to three months, the second concerned the frequency with which the plane communicates with land.

"Flight data is now sent from the plane every 10 minutes," said Alexandre de Juniac, CEO of Air France-KLM.

If a plane deviates from its initial flight plan we send a message every minute to our dispatch office in Paris ... to say that something is wrong. So the tracking is much more accurate and we know minute by minute where the plane is.

"We have the equipment on board; it's a decision plus some investment to increase the frequency of the messages."

Another issue facing airlines and pilots is the question of making something tamper-proof. Manufacturers say that can mean devices that won't be able to be switched off in-flight.

"Speaking as a former pilot myself, if I had a particular piece of kit in the cockpit and I wanted to stop it smoking or being on fire, I could disable that," said Hiatt.

"Now they're saying they want to take that away from the pilot. So there are some diverse opinions which will be explored."

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