Regulators dither on real-time tracking as another airplane goes missing

Air France 447.

Malaysia Airlines MH370.

AirAsia QZ8501.

Dec. 28, 2014: Each flight disappeared over water. Search parties had a general idea where to look for AF447, but it still took five days before wreckage was spotted in the water and two years before the flight recorder and cockpit voice recorder were recovered.

Searchers think they know generally–very generally–where to look for MH370, but no wreckage at all has been spotted.

And now there’s AirAsia QZ8501. Searchers have a general idea where to look, but not precisely.

Aviation regulators are infamous for their “tombstone” mentality–not requiring safety changes until people die.

How many people have to die before regulators finally mandate real-time flight tracking?

ICAO, the international organization that overseas safety and regulatory issues, has been dithering since MH370 about mandating real-time flight tracking. But the issue has been around since the 2009 Air France crash. There has been no action.

AirAsia demonstrates that real-time tracking is not just trans-ocean flights that need tracking. MH370 also showed this–the flight was a relatively short, intra-Asia flight with an even shorter over-water portion when contact was lost.

It’s time for ICAO to make a decision, and if it doesn’t then individual country regulators need to step up and require real-time tracking. This won’t save the lives lost but recovering wreckage and the black boxes in a timely manner could lead to safety and operational changes that will save lives in the future.

We don’t need more tombstones.

13 Comments on “Regulators dither on real-time tracking as another airplane goes missing

  1. If a writer would like to win the respect of the aviation comunity, would encourage him/her to avoid some of the journalistic methods used by many to incite emotional reactions in the readers. The complicated system of continuously evolving R&D, design, testing principles, certification requirements and regulatory controls are there to avoid catastrophic events, which unfortunately will continue to occurr.

    This continuous improvement process is NOT driven by a “tombstone mentality”, but if one wants to use this offensive hyperbola, well, you might be right…

    • I agree,”how many people have to die “is OTT and you should know better,particularly when you contradict yourself with”this won’t save lives “.everytime a plane crashes some idiot will invariably wind everyone up by asking about and weight (much the same thing on a plane)are much better spent on not crashing.Ethiopian 787 locator very nearly caused its own crash.I don’t really disagree, but I think real-time tracking and data transmission are more likely to be helpful in preventing accidents from occurring in the first place.

    • It is very frustrating that aircraft tracking technology has been available for over a decade! Systems are cheap (ranging from $1500 once off and 35c per hour of tracking reports every 3 min), reliable and secure, yet the public is still fed garbage about the technology being “too expensive” or requiring “too much bandwidth” to implement.
      These are systems that are available right now – ADS-B satellite listeners and ACARS improvements are all being mooted, but are likely only to be rolled out by 2017 at best. How many more aircraft need to go missing before the regulators make a decision? Some countries are taking the initiative already – India has already mandated realtime tracking on all registered aircraft ( – but I certainly agree that there is much dithering from the majority of regulators.
      Whilst real-time tracking cannot obviously prevent aircraft accidents, in incidents where our systems have been installed, we have been able to guide rescuers to crash sites soon enough to save lives, as well as the invaluable information that can be recovered to explain why the incident occurred. Search and rescue costs are also dramatically reduced – the cost of finding MH370 is expected to exceed $60m.
      There are really no more more excuses for not adopting real-time tracking systems on aircraft (and not just the commercial carriers), and the public should not continue to be duped that there are no answers to the problem.

    • Continuous improvement may not be but according to ex-Regulators (e.g., Mary Schaivo, John Goglia, …) regulations are driven by a “tombstone mentality”.

      There’s nothing complicated about the technology and nothing cost prohibitive about the systems, most of which already have STCs.

      Airlines are not going to invest in anything that does not have a positive ROIC, even though they pay their lobbyist (A4A, AIA, …) much more to stop smart regulations.

      The reason I say “smart regulations” is that the same data transport systems used for Sat/ATG WiFi (entertaining PaxEx) could also be used for select engine and aircraft health management data transport at a lower cost than ACARS.

      But unless there is a public outcry louder than the paid lobbyists who wine and dine politicians, regulations will not change.

      • Today we’ve seen Wall Street Journal’s report that AirAsia will piggyback off the narrowband inflight Wi-Fi pipe it is installing on aircraft, and use it to support tracking. But movement is afoot to use the broadband Ku and Ka pipes – which are not approved for safety services – to transmit health monitoring data, for instance. Southwest is eyeing this for its Ku connectivity-fitted 737s.

  2. Two incidents of ‘aircraft disappearance’ within 1 year in the same airspace indicates more than random coincidence. I don’t see any reason to question technology anymore. May be we need to open our minds to the idea that the weather-based flight operation risks are evolving and existing technologies are not versatile/robust enough to meet the new breed of ‘worst-case-scenarios’.

    The cause of the QZ8501 disappearance will be known only after the investigation is completed. I do see a ‘distant correlation’ between global aircraft disappearances and lightning activity. Nothing conclusive but indicative in a way. Here is my analysis:

    Again, the new threats are calling for upgraded safety measures. Just because a set of technologies have been successful for a few decades does not guarantee their effectiveness a time-independent success-state. The ‘capabilities’ have limits but ‘threats’ and ‘worst-case-scenarios’ don’t have any limits.

    • Interesting but not very convincing. Correlation does not prove causation. Maybe there have been more disappearances in certain regions simply becauese there are more flights there.

  3. Bravo! It is time someone with credibility like Leeham pointed out the insanity of not continuously tracking every commercial flight. The technology exists and is inexpensive. Whatever the imagined disadvantages of such tracking might be, the advantages outweigh those. Agencies such as FAA and ICAO move at a glacial pace in a world that is moving at, well, the speed of modern airliners. They need to act and act fast enough or they become irrelevant!

    • Amen. We’re having the exact same conversation as in 2009. IATA has just tabled tracking recommendations to ICAO that are lukewarm at best. Airlines could not even collectively agree to implement basic measures within a 12-month timeframe.

  4. Is it not possible to have ACARS standard on all aircraft, where information is only sent to the manufacturer or safety authorities, but available to operators who subscribe for the service?

    • ADB-S should be sufficient.

      Just a few small and cheap sattelites could close the gaps.

      • My understanding is that ADS-B transmits basic information such as position, speed etc. But wouldn’t more detailed flight data be useful for manufacturers and safety authorities to monitor and improve aircraft performance and safety standards?

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