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U.N. Agency Sets New Standards For Tracking Aircraft In Flight

Feb 5, 2015
Originally published on February 5, 2015 8:11 am

The United Nations' aviation organization is endorsing a new standard meant to keep air traffic authorities and airlines from losing track of a jetliner, such as Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

That plane disappeared into the Indian Ocean almost a year ago with 239 people on board.

Under the new policy, commercial airliners would be required to transmit their location every 15 minutes and every minute if in distress.

Air safety investigator Anthony Brickhouse says whenever there's a horrifying air transport tragedy, the hope is that from the wreckage and the flight recorders, you can piece together what happened and learn from it.

"And you can't learn unless you find the plane or if you have data from the plane, so right now we really can't learn anything from this event because we don't have any evidence yet, and that's the problem," says Brickhouse, an associate professor of safety science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

For many, it is still hard to fathom how, in this day and age, a Boeing 777 could just vanish without a trace, as MH370 did on March 8, 2014.

So in response to that event and another Malaysia Airlines tragedy last year, the U.N.'s International Civil Aviation Organization called only its second ever high level safety conference.

Aviation regulators, safety advocates and airline executives from around the world attending the summit in Montreal this week agreed to establish new flight tracking protocols.

"And we've developed very quickly a standard, which calls for an aircraft to be tracked within 15 minutes, no matter where it is around the world, whether it's in radar coverage or not," says Nancy Graham, director of ICAO's Air Navigation Bureau.

She says planes will be required to check in every 15 minutes during normal operations and there's an additional standard for planes in distress.

"If it gets into trouble, if it goes beyond its flight plan or a very quick descent or something that's in trouble, it will begin to broadcast once every minute, which allows us to locate the aircraft in the event that it goes down within six nautical miles."

Graham says if such a global flight tracking standard had been in place, "We hope that would have enabled us to find [MH370] within six nautical miles or one minute, navigationally. So that's exactly the point; it would have been able to give us a better sense of the location very quickly," Graham added, "and then not having the families be in such pain waiting to find out exactly what happened."

The member states participating in the aviation safety summit agreed to enact this new tracking standard with a target date for implementation of November 2016.

But the measure still needs formal United Nations approval. In the meantime, airlines voluntarily agree to begin implementing the technologies needed for such flight tracking. Most modern-day aircraft already have the capabilities, but the airline industry stops short of fully committing to meeting that target date for implementation.

"Certainly, the industry is not, sort of, sitting back and waiting," says Tony Tyler, director general of the International Air Transport Association. "A number of airlines are and are planning to improve and work to new ways of tracking their aircraft in flight."

Some safety advocates, including Malaysia's government and the National Transportation Safety Board here in the U.S., want a stricter plane tracking standard and are calling for real-time, minute-by-minute flight tracking.

"The ultimate way to do this would be not to just do it every 15 minutes, but to sample every minute, so you are constantly, basically real-time tracking an aircraft," says air safety investigator Brickhouse.

But he adds this is a good first step. "I know that 15 minutes doesn't seem like a lot," he says. "But compared to what we have now, where planes can be out of radar contact for hours, I think the 15 minutes is a good start."

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

One of the shocking news events in 2014 was the disappearance of a commercial jetliner, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. There were 239 people on board. The authorities lost track of the plane. It still hasn't been found. At the United Nations, officials who monitor aviation are trying to prevent this from happening again. They want to require commercial jetliners to report their location every 15 minutes. Some safety advocates wanted even more requirements. Here's NPR's David Schaper.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Air safety investigator Anthony Brickhouse says whenever there's a horrifying air transporter tragedy, the hope is that from the wreckage and the flight recorders, you can piece together what happened and learn from it.

ANTHONY BRICKHOUSE: And you can't learn unless you find the plane or if you have data from the plane. So right now, we really can't learn anything from this event because we don't have any evidence yet. And that's the problem.

SCHAPER: Brickhouse is referring to the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 on March 8 of last year, an event the professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University calls unprecedented and shocking. For many, it is still hard to fathom how, in this day and age, the Boeing 777 just vanished without a trace. So international aviation regulators, safety advocates and airline executives are meeting in Montreal this week to establish new flight-tracking protocols.

NANCY GRAHAM: And we developed very quickly a standard which calls for an aircraft to be tracked within 15 minutes, no matter where it is around the world, whether it's in radar coverage or not.

SCHAPER: This is Nancy Graham, director of the Air Navigation Bureau at the U.N.'s International Civil Aviation Organization. She says planes will be required to check in every 15 minutes during normal operations, and there's an additional standard for planes in distress.

GRAHAM: If it gets into trouble, if it goes beyond its flight plan or in a very quick dissent or something that's in trouble, it will begin to broadcast once every minute, which allows us to locate the aircraft, in the event that it goes down, within six nautical miles.

SCHAPER: And Graham says these tracking systems will be tamper-proof. The member states participating in the aviation safety summit agreed to enact this new tracking standard with a target date for full implementation of November, 2016. But the airline industry stops short of promising to meet that deadline. Tony Tyler is director general of the International Air Transport Association.

TONY TYLER: Certainly, the industry is not sort of sitting back and waiting. A number of airlines are and are planning to improve and work to new ways of tracking their aircrafts in flight.

SCHAPER: And, in fact, experts say such tracking technology already exists in most planes, and it shouldn't be too costly for airlines to implement. Still, some, including Malaysia's government and the NTSB, are calling for real-time, minute-by-minute flight tracking. Air safety investigator Anthony Brickhouse agrees that would be the ideal. But he adds...

BRICKHOUSE: I know that 15 minutes doesn't seem like a lot. But compared to what we have now, where planes can be out of radar contact for hours, I think the 15 minutes is a good start.

SCHAPER: And Brickhouse says it's a first step toward eventually requiring real-time flight tracking, which he says isn't too far off. David Schaper, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.