Monday, March 09, 2015

ICAO To Airlines: Watch Where You're Going (Every 15 Minutes)

Once in a great while, I have the satisfaction of making a prediction or calling for a certain action in this blog, and then seeing the called-for event actually come to pass.  Last month, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) issued a new set of tracking requirements for airlines in participating countries, which means just about every airline that flies in more than one country.  While a formal vote on the requirements won't happen till later in the year, the slow-moving machinery of the United Nations—of which the ICAO is a part—has finally creaked into action.  So it may not be too much to hope that the kind of situation that has kept the destiny of Malaysia Flight 370 a mystery to this day can be avoided in the future, or at least that such incidents will produce data that will make the plane easier to find.

Flight 370, which disappeared a year ago March 8, was supposed to stay within range of ground-based tracking radars.  But when it veered way off course toward the open ocean for reasons that are still unknown, the limited-range ground radars lost contact with it, and an onboard satellite-tracking system was not working, possibly because it was intentionally disabled.  The upshot was that once the flight disappeared, investigators had to use some arcane technical tricks to estimate the flight's last known location, and the resulting poor accuracy and long gaps between known locations have left searchers stuck with many thousands of square miles of ocean to cover.  The plane may never be found.

Back in January, I blogged on this tragedy and noted that the U. S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was urging the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to adopt improved flight-location technology.  I also noted that while this move would help us to find international flights operated by US carriers, a truly international solution would have to await action by the ICAO, which has now begun to act.

As reported in a recent Associated Press article, the ICAO rules would require each airline to get location updates for all their flights every 15 minutes.  How they get the updates is up to the airlines.  Deep-pocketed operations such as Air France already have automatic satellite-location systems in place, and probably either already meet the requirements or can change their operations slightly to comply.  Less well-funded airlines can fall back on having their pilots look at their pocket GPS they mail-ordered from Walmart and use their shortwave radios to report their position.  Any way will do, says the ICAO, but you have to update your flight locations every 15 minutes.  If the rules are approved, this requirement will go into effect in 2016, which is by UN standards almost instantaneously. 

A second part of the ruling pertains to automatic flight-location technology, typically a satellite link.  By 2020, all new airplanes carrying more than 19 passengers will have to go into a minute-by-minute location transmission mode if an emergency occurs such as a steep dive or significant deviation from the flight plan.  The five-year delay from now would give airframe manufacturers and their customers time to ready the technology and the money to pay for it, respectively. 

By specifying in the 15-minute rule the desired outcome rather than the technology required to achieve it, the ICAO has done a clever thing.  Each airline can tailor its response to its own circumstances and adopt an approach that doesn't place an undue burden either on the flight crew or on the airline's budget for new equipment.  For reasons that are not clear, but may have to do with relationships between large avionics companies and the federal government, FAA rules tend to be much more prescriptive of exactly how certain goals are to be achieved technologically.  Historically, the FAA owned and operated much of the technology itself, so naturally the agency got in the habit of telling the airlines what matching equipment they needed.  But nowadays, the central-control model is pretty old-fashioned and is being superseded by distributed technologies that rely upon a combination of public, private, and open-source resources to work.  Safety-critical technologies are a breed apart, and a certain level of standardization and certification is reasonable.  But I wonder if things might move a little faster in domestic aviation technology if the FAA took a hint from the ICAO, and moved toward simply telling airlines what is to be achieved, and let the firms themselves figure out how to achieve it.

All this comes too late to help those on the ill-fated Flight 370, which is probably—but not for sure—somewhere at the bottom of the Indian Ocean.  The death of a loved one is always a tragedy, but there must be a special pain associated with not knowing anything about the person's final hours, and what mischance caused their demise.  Sooner or later, someone will probably find the wreckage, and if enough evidence can be recovered it may be possible to reconstruct what happened.  But in the meantime, I hope that the proposed new ICAO rules will make it much less likely that airlines will simply lose track of a plane while someone runs off with it, and can even prevent such incidents from occurring in the future.

Sources:  The article "Airlines move to better track their planes" by Scott Meyerowitz and David Koenig was carried by numerous newspapers, including the Deseret News on Mar. 3, 2015 at  My post "High Time for SatelliteTracking of All International Flights" appeared on Jan. 26, 2015.

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