Why Passenger Planes Can Still Vanish

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By Dec. 30, when search teams started to recover debris and bodies from the apparent crash site of AirAsia flight QZ8501, the airline industry had begun to listen to renewed calls from flyers and regulators for more precise, consistent tracking of commercial aircraft. During bad weather two days earlier, the Airbus A320, while carrying 162 folks from Surabaya in Indonesia to Singapore, had dropped off radar and couldn’t be found.

More than three-quarters of the earth’s surface, including large elements of Africa, Asia, and SOUTH USA in addition to the majority of the oceans, lacks reliable radar coverage. In March, whenever a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 bound for China disappeared, airlines and regulators started to grapple with the truth that a plane with out a working transponder could be virtually invisible. Most new aircraft include technologies that bridge the radar gap, but many older planes still don’t keep these things. The International Air Transport Association, a trade group that represents 250 airlines, emphasizes that virtually all the 100,000 flights each day travel without incident.

Older transponders relay a plane’s altitude only at the request of ground-based radar. Newer systems, called ADS-B, gather location data from GPS after which broadcast it to air traffic controllers along with other planes in your community; about 65 percent of the world’s commercial fleet keep these things. Most airlines also work with a text-based messaging service that may provide position data at whatever interval a carrier chooses. Over land, the more complex systems send controllers a plane’s location and performance data via ultrahigh-frequency radio waves. In remote areas the machine switches to satellite transmissions, which cost about doubly much, estimates Mark Duell, vice president for operations at FlightAware, an organization that tracks airlines. Sita and Rockwell Collins , both leading companies selling this type of communications equipment, declined to supply pricing details.

Installation costs can run as high as $ 500,000 per plane, plus fees to satellite providers for data transmission, Duell says. Some large carriers with long-haul operations pay a contract service to actively track their flights, but that still requires installing advanced location equipment on planes. The U.S. and the EU have mandated such systems onboard all commercial aircraft by 2020 and therefore are starting to phase out the usage of conventional radar in air traffic control. Once aircraft are equipped, data costs in the U.S. will undoubtedly be included in taxes and user fees, says Ed Sayadian, vice president for civil and aerospace systems at aerospace manufacturer Exelis , that is creating a ground-based tracking network for the Federal Aviation Administration. “It’s not so expensive after the infrastructure is up,” he says.

On Dec. 10 an IATA-led task force issued a number of nonbinding tips for member airlines that, if followed, could plug the holes in tracking networks. Included in this: Inside a year, each airline will be able to report a plane’s latitude, longitude, and altitude at a specific moment to within 1 nautical mile at the very least every a quarter-hour, and much more frequently after certain trigger events, like a dramatic change in speed or altitude.

Some airlines pushed back, saying they couldn’t meet up with the suggested deadlines, based on the trade group’s ceo, Tony Tyler. “Our members took an extremely serious consider the recommendations,” he says. “While they’re focused on improving, they might not fully endorse what will be practically unachievable for a few.” The authors of the IATA recommendations, including pilots and aircraft manufacturers, warned in the report that “public trust and confidence in aviation reaches risk” when aircraft “can’t be located.”

The UN International Civil Aviation Organization will propose the 15-minute reporting standard to the and its own member states at a safety conference in early February, says spokesman Anthony Philbin. Jonathan Sinnatt, a spokesman for British satellite company Inmarsat, predicts that the ultimate guidelines may cause airlines to migrate more of these flight monitoring to satellites. Reliable tracking is rapidly learning to be a nonnegotiable component of travel safety for regulators in the U.S., Europe, and several elements of Asia. But without binding regulations, individual airlines will probably invest in new tracking systems only once they install satellite-based systems for Access to the internet or television, says Robert Mann, an aviation consultant and former American Airlines executive. At that time, Mann says, running the tracking function together with the passenger services becomes “dirt cheap.”

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