Global Aircraft Tracking: An Idea Whose Time Has Come

By John E. Gillick

Prompted by the crash of Air France Flight 447 in 2009 (where it took almost two years to recover the wreckage and “black boxes”) and the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 in March 2014, the world’s airlines, aircraft and avionics manufacturers, pilot associations and aviation regulators have come together to evaluate and recommend enhanced aircraft tracking options for use by commercial aircraft as soon as available.

Within a month of the disappearance of Malaysian Flight 370 from radar over the Gulf of Thailand en route from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Beijing, China, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the trade association for 240 international airlines accounting for 84% of global air traffic, created a special Task Force to evaluate options and develop an industry position on aircraft tracking by the end of 2014. The Task Force included experts from IATA and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO, discussed below) as well as the Airlines for America (the U.S. airline trade association), Association of Asia Pacific Airlines, Civil Air Navigation Services Organization, Flight Safety Foundation, International Coordinating Council of Aerospace Industries Associations and International Federation of Airline Pilots Associations, and Boeing Commercial Airplanes, Airbus SAS, Bombardier Aerospace and Embraer Commercial Aviation. The initial meeting of the Task Force was held on May 13th and the group met monthly from then through October 2014. The original plan was to develop a “draft” set of recommendations by the end of September 2014, but those recommendations were not available for consideration and approval by the IATA Board of Directors until its December meeting

The Task Force’s principal focus was to recommend a set of performance-based recommendations to better assure global aircraft tracking. Rather than recommending one system, however, the Task Force was to develop several options provided by various manufacturers and suppliers from which an airline could select the system best suited to its needs. These recommendations were developed through an assessment of available products and services used for tracking commercial aircraft (numbering over 30 such systems and services at the beginning of its deliberations) against specific criteria developed by the Task Force, including factors such as performance parameters, availability, coverage, security and cost. The group also defined a minimum set of performance requirements that any tracking system should achieve, i.e., a baseline set of requirements that must be met for an airline to use a particular system. Lastly, the Task Force developed a Concept of Operations for consideration by ICAO at its February 2015 High Level Safety Conference addressing how the tracking data gets shared, with whom, and under what circumstances.

While the Task Force had a short-term focus, the work of ICAO (a U.N. specialized agency created in 1944 to regulate world-wide aviation safety) was focused on developing medium and longer-term programs to assure that aircraft flight tracking systems are adopted on a permanent basis throughout the aviation system. Towards this end, ICAO held a Special Multi-Disciplinary Meeting on Global Flight Tracking on May 12-13, 2014, in which over 200 Member State and industry experts discussed a variety of aircraft tracking systems and possible regulatory standards. The meeting concluded with agreement upon a framework for future ICAO efforts, including development of (a) a final, Concept of Operations that would be delivered for consideration at the ICAO High Level Safety Conference in February 2015, and (b) ICAO performance-based standards on flight tracking to support the location of an accident site in a timely manner for the purpose of search and rescue and accident investigation that are sufficiently flexible to accommodate regional needs and differing operational situations. Such performance standards are the mechanism by which ICAO establishes the regulatory requirements that must be followed by ICAO Member States in their regulation of aviation operations within their jurisdiction. Given the critical role played by these standards in assuring aviation safety and the need to accommodate varying circumstances throughout the world, it is not unusual for ICAO to take several years to develop a final standard, and ICAO estimates the standard for global aircraft tracking is not likely to be finalized until 2016.

The IATA Task Force issued its Report and Recommendations on November 11, 2014.  The Task Force’s most important recommendations were that the aircraft tracking function should report at least every 15 minutes and that operators not currently meeting this criterion implement measures to do so within twelve months of the issuance of the Task Force Report, i.e., November 2015.  The Task Force Report was considered by the IATA Board of Directors at its December 2014 meeting, and, while the board generally endorsed the work of the Task Force, it did not fully endorse the 12 month time for compliance with the 15 minute reporting requirement, indicating that “closing the gap
may take more than a 12 month time limit for every aircraft.”

The Task Force Report was submitted to ICAO shortly after the IATA meeting, and distributed for discussion at ICAO’s Second High-Level Safety Conference in the first week of February 2014.  On Tuesday, February 3, 2015, Member States participating in the conference recommended the adoption of a new standard that would require the tracking of commercial aircraft at least every 15 minutes.  In a compromise reached with IATA officials on the eve of the ICAO Conference, the standard will, according to the present schedule, be adopted by the ICAO Council in November 2015 (followed by an “implementation initiative” designed to address regional issues) and phased in for final effectiveness by November 2016.

Thus, if all goes according to plan, the ICAO Council will adopt the 15 minute reporting requirement as a formal standard in November 2015, looking towards its full implementation by November 2016.  Although there, no doubt, remains work to be done between now and November 2016 by Member States in formally adopting this standard into their civil aviation regulations and by airlines in taking the necessary measures to comply with the standard, ICAO’s action is a critically important first step in assuring the traveling public that, for the first time since the dawn of aviation, all commercial aircraft will be tracked on a world-wide basis by no later than November 2016.