The United Nations wants to track all civil aviation flights

The United Nations’ civil aviation arm will convene a meeting in Montreal on Monday to discuss ways to track planes flying over the open sea.

The United Nations agency, the International Civil Aviation Organization, has dozens of competing proposals to sort through, and it operates only through multinational consensus, which usually means slowly or not at all. After the last time searchers struggled to find a downed airliner — the crash of Air France Flight 447 into the equatorial Atlantic Ocean five years ago — the agency considered three recommendations from safety authorities, but only one is being carried out: the introduction of longer-lasting batteries for the “pingers” attached to the data recorders, or black boxes.

The requirement that batteries last 90 days instead of 30 will not be fully phased in until 2018, and the Boeing 777 used on the Malaysian flight did not have the new batteries. If they had been installed, it might have helped in the search, which took weeks to narrow its focus enough to begin listening for the pings.

“It’s complicated work to get 191 states to agree on anything,” said Anthony Philbin, a spokesman for the United Nations agency, known as ICAO.

Another expert with long experience in multinational aviation negotiations, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that “ICAO doesn’t feel very good about the aftermath of Air France 447, and then, lo and behold, we get Malaysia.”

“ICAO doesn’t have a very good story to tell,” he said. “Nobody does.”

Like the Malaysian plane, the Air France jet was flying over open ocean, far beyond the range of tracking radar on the ground. But it was not far off course, and searchers had a good idea where to look from the start — they found floating debris from the crash within a few days. By contrast, the Malaysia Airlines jet stopped communicating with the ground and then turned sharply off course, leaving only faint and obscure clues to where it had gone as it flew unrecognized and largely untracked for thousands more miles.

The options before ICAO to prevent a repeat of the disappearance of Flight 370 pose various complications. For example, one technically promising approach is to make use of satellites in low-earth orbit that Iridium Communications will launch beginning next year. They will cover the globe at an altitude of just a few hundred miles, and can be reached with much lower-powered radios than are needed to communicate with geostationary satellites, which are 22,300 miles up.

The satellites would extend to the oceans a system that is now used widely over land, in which each plane reports its identity, position and altitude many times each minute to a central computer on the ground. The system collects the data and integrates it into a unified map for ground controllers showing every plane. European and American authorities are moving to require all aircraft to have that system, said Janet Nickloy, the vice president of strategy and business development at the Harris Corporation, which is building the hardware that will fly on Iridium’s satellites.

Among other advantages, this system would allow planes on ocean routes to safely follow one another at a distance of 15 miles, in lanes 15 miles apart. Under current rules, they follow one another by at least 60 miles in lanes 80 miles apart. Tighter spacing would allow more planes on busy routes to fly with the most favorable winds, saving more than $100 million a year in fuel costs in the North Atlantic, all while improving safety.

But Iridium does not plan to offer the service directly. It will “host” the gear on its satellites and gradually spin off a new company, called Aireon, to develop the equipment and run the service. That company will eventually be 51 percent owned by Nav Canada, the air traffic service provider for Canada and much of the North Atlantic, and the Italian, Irish and Danish air traffic service providers will also own major shares. Veterans at ICAO say that regardless of the plan’s technical merits, other countries will see commercial motives, rather than safety ones, behind votes for Aireon from the countries that own it.

Another proposal is from Inmarsat, the company whose satellite received fleeting “handshake” signals from Flight 370 that, while lacking location data, were used to infer the plane’s probable location. Inmarsat is proposing to offer free tracking to airlines that subscribe to an upgraded version of the service it already provides on 90 percent of widebody commercial jets, like the 777.

The company is not making the offer to be charitable. It hopes that the airlines will increase the volume of in-flight data that they transmit on Inmarsat’s network for a fee, just as cellphone companies may offer free smartphone upgrades in the hope that customers will then spend more on service plans to make use of them.

Inmarsat’s upgraded system does not yet have regulatory approval for the provision of safety services, and the company does not expect to receive approval before 2015. Allowing airlines to field-test the system could speed up approval.

If the Inmarsat proposal is carried out, it could be a big help in locating a plane that has gone down. But many experts say its information would not be precise enough to be used to maintain safe separation for air traffic.

ICAO is also grappling with the question of whether the tracking system should operate beyond the control of the aircraft’s pilots. Investigators strongly suspect that someone in the cockpit of Flight 370 deliberately deactivated the satellite communications system on the plane, along with the plane’s transponder, which reports its identity and location when queried by ground radar.

It is not clear how a system could be set up that a malevolent pilot could not turn off, some experts said. “There’s always going to be a way to get rid of something,” one American investigator said.

And pilots are adamant that no such system should be installed. “The term I really don’t like is ‘pilot proofing,’ ” said Sean Cassidy, a vice president and the national safety coordinator at the Air Line Pilots Association.

Mr. Cassidy, who flies a Boeing 737, said that all the electrical equipment on board has circuit breakers so that it can be shut down in case of a fire, a known risk. He said that assumptions were being made about Flight 370’s disappearance based on very little evidence, and that it was not possible to quantify the risk from a malevolent pilot. “We should not trade a risk factor that’s known for a risk factor that’s unknown,” he said.


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