Aug 042014

3bec241 - Global Flight-Tracking Means No Lost Aircraft Again
Commercial passenger air travel industry groups are drafting global flight-tracking standards by December with adoption by February 2015. (Photo Credit: Associated Press, a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200ER departing).

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) plans to communicate the draft global flight-tracking findings to its 240 member airlines in December 2014. IATA’s 240 member airlines encompass 84% of international passenger air traffic.

Later, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) plans to convene a high-level safety meeting in Montreal, Canada, to approve a concept of operations for global flight-tracking, and to move forward in developing a global flight-tracking standard by February 2015. ICAO plans to publish in 2016 its global flight-tracking standards.

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Background and Motivation

Upon the MH370 aviation tragedy on March 8, the Aircraft Tracking Task Force (ATTF) was announced on April 1, 2014 by IATA Director General and CEO Tony Tyler at the IATA Operations Conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

The 20-member ATTF group, comprising representatives from ICAO, IATA, the airline industry representatives and airline pilots, is near completion of their work in time for a September release.

Specifically, the ATTF includes representatives from IATA, ICAO, Airlines for America, Association of Asia-Pacific Airlines, the Civil Air Navigation Services Organization, Flight Safety Foundation, International Coordinating Council of Aerospace Industries Associations, International Federation of Air Line Pilots Associations, Boeing Commercial Airplanes, Airbus SAS, Bombardier Aerospace, and Embraer Commercial Aviation.

The ATTF first meeting followed the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Special Meeting on Aircraft Flight Tracking, on May 12-13, 2014 in Montreal, Canada.

The UN agency says it is moving quickly to improve the global tracking of airline flights, and that ICAO expects to have a series of recommendations in place by September.

Nancy Graham, the director of ICAO’s Air Navigation Bureau, has widely expressed to news agencies that “the bulk of the global air fleet has the tracking capabilities, but that changes in hardware, software, and procedures must be made,” according to The Canadian Press. She says “any changes would not be terribly expensive or difficult.”

Shortly afterwards, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) held an “Expert Dialogue” on real-time monitoring of flight data in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on May 25-27, 2014.

The primary goal of the ATTF is to draft approaches of global flight-tracking, not surveillance, of international commercial passenger airliners, as well as, assess available means of global flight-tracking (including costs, “big data” management, and flight data performance analysis typically-used for airline operations and governance decisions).

It is anticipated that the ATTF recommendations be drafted by September 2014 for approval by the airline industry by December 2014, so that going forward no airliner disappears ever again.

The ATTF is an accelerated initiative of IATA and ICAO in the wake of these past five months of 298 lives lost on board the recent MH17 aviation disaster on July 17, compounding atop the 239 lives lost on board the MH370 aviation tragedy on March 8.

Commercial passenger airlines, upon the ATTF recommendations, will be in control to decide about how to best track their airliners based on their operations, including performance-based flight data being transmitted back to them real-time around the globe, including over transatlantic, transpacific, and transpolar remote regions of the world.

Currently, neither the airlines nor air traffic control have adequate airliner real-time position awareness over oceanic regions. About 80% of wide-body airliners flying over long periods across transatlantic, transpacific, and transpolar oceanic routes are equipped with the Future Air Navigation Systems (FANS) to communicate with oceanic air traffic controllers, the airliner’s automatic dependent surveillance-contract (ADS-C) position. The terms of an ADS-C agreement outline the means upon which flight navigation is communicated or exchanged between the ground system and the aircraft cockpit, via a data link, specifying under what conditions ADS-C reports may be initiated, and what data may be contained in the reports.

MH370’s Boeing 777-200 airliner and AF447’s Airbus A330-200 airliner were equipped with ADS-C position reporting. Additional airliner reporting can be acquired over satellite networks using the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS).

When MH370 disappeared from air traffic control radar screens on March 8, unfortunately, the Boeing 777-200 airliner was set in basic radar control, eliminating the need for ADS-C remote position reporting.

By definition, aircraft surveillance, being an air traffic control concern, maintains separation between aircraft. In contrast, aircraft flight-tracking, being the ATTF’s focus, determines at any point in time where an airliner is during its flight from departure takeoff to arrival destination landing.

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Global flight-tracking is additionally an international call-for-action in the wake of the MH17 aviation disaster for the commercial passenger airline’s trade group, IATA, and the United Nation’s commercial passenger airline’s policy group, ICAO, to consult, to counsel, to advise, and to warn sovereign states to establish clearer commercial passenger risk management policies and guidelines, like those of British Airways, for restricted flight paths over known war zones by commercial passenger aircraft.

Sadly, Eurocontrol had the Ukrainian war zone open to commercial air travel at the time MH17 was tragically thrown out of the sky. Malaysian official said ICAO had approved the route the doomed MH17 airliner took. However, this appears to be a misreading of what exactly the ICAO does. ICAO issues advisories only through rule-making standards, such as global flight-tracking, based on civil airline business decisions taken by its delegates, rather than mandating to its members what to do in commercial passenger airline travel.

Evolution of Global Flight-Tracking Industry Groups Rule-making Standards.

The two-year search for Air France 447’s (AF447) resting place inside the mid-Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Brazil launched a call for immediate voluntary improvements in how airlines keep track of their aircraft.

Recommendations were presented to ICAO and IATA after AF447 to improve our current ability to locate and retrieve airliner flight data and cockpit voice recorders (i.e., “black-boxes”), when an airliner disappears in remote oceanic waters. Besides this, the AF447 Final Report recommended streaming data and deployable emergency locator transmitters, and various accident-specific airliner location tools, as potential solutions to expensive AF447-like and MH370-like searches.

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Streaming of basic flight data at a high rate via satellite links during airliner emergencies was the bottom-line takeaway from the 23-month search for AF447’s flight data and cockpit voice recorders. Thereat the scope of the search for the AF447 “black-boxes” was about a 40 nautical mile radius around the final transmitted position of the Airbus A330-200 in the mid-Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Brazil. This can be contrasted to the MH370 search zone now about a 17,500 square nautical mile region in the southern Indian Ocean, according to today’s August 4 edition of Aviation Week.

ICAO’s rule changes after the AF447 accident include longer battery life for the existing underwater locator beacons on the “black-boxes” and new low-frequency locators on the devices—but not streaming data or deployable flight data recorders, says Aviation Week.

ICAO is redirecting its efforts on streaming flight data slowly, Aviation Week reports further, by developing rules that will outline how all airlines must track their airliners, including an “early notice” of and response to abnormal flight behavior.

“A lot of press put together two things that don’t belong together: that if we had had streaming data we would not have had the accident,” Nancy Graham, director of ICAO’s Air Navigation Bureau, who is leading the ICAO flight data-streaming rule-making, which could take two years or more, said in Aviation Week. “That’s not true. But unfortunately in a region hungry for information, that was a very hard thing to unwind.”

These may not be entirely the specific goals of the ATTF, as they are perhaps somewhat tangential to the immediate focus of enhanced global flight-tracking of an airliners’ last reported location, which is particularly useful information to have in the unlikely event of an airliner safety mishap or catastrophic event on board during flight.

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Photo Credit: (CBC News, Montreal). IATA’s Safety and Flight Operations senior vice president, Kevin Hiatt (left) and ICAO’s Air Navigation Bureau director, Nancy Graham (right) say the Aircraft Tracking Task Force (ATTF) meets once a month, beginning its work in June.

“As far as the industry goes, one event is too many,” Kevin Hiatt, senior vice president for safety and flight operations at the International Air Transportation Association (IATA), said to Aviation Week. “We’ve drawn the line in the sand and said we’re going to come up with some options right now for the near term to provide additional ways to appease the flying public that it is safe to be there.”

Hiatt, who is chairman of the five-member steering group overseeing the ATTF, says there are three “work streams” underway. One group is developing a concept of operations (what ATTF calls “Conops“) for global flight-tracking. Another group is examining the current state of flight-tracking to determine “where the gaps are.” A third group is coming up with the minimum requirements that any tracking system should meet.

“Out of those three work streams, we’ll be able to produce a report that will address most of everything that everybody has ideas about,” Hiatt says.

He adds that “IATA’s actions on enhanced global aircraft-tracking are meant to go into effect quickly once the ATTF’s work is confirmed at IATA’s board of governors meeting in December and subsequently presented to its airline members,” according to Aviation Week.

“We do know there are differences right now in the world with carriers who are tracking their own aircraft as far as how often,” says Hiatt. “We’re focusing more on the broad base to make sure that aircraft are being tracked, and then we’ll get into the granularity of options of how often or when they need to be tracked, whether only during a non-normal event or throughout the entire regime of the flight.”

ICAO will hold a “high-level safety conference” in February 2015, where Nancy Graham anticipates the ATTF’s Conops will be ratified. Additional drafting of performance-based international standards she predicts will be completed in two years, a rapid pace for new ICAO rule-making.

“All airlines should know where their aircraft are, but all airlines don’t,” says Graham. “There are reasons for that. Some are technology, some are procedural.”

Because, what we don’t know much about still are three alarming concerns: (1) commercial airlines flying over war zones, (2) unsecured remote crash sites or lost oceanic crash locations, and once again, at the risk of sounding like a red-herring, (3) “It’s Time to Put the ‘Black-Box in The Cloud.’

ICAO’s long-range outlook envisions “cloud-based remote storage of flight information,” or “Black-Box in The Cloud.”

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Road Map to Global Flight-Tracking Standards 2014, as chronicled in Aviation Week.

March 8 • MH370 disappears from radar over the Gulf of Thailand en route from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Beijing, China.

March 31- April 2 • International Air Transport Association (IATA) convenes Operations Conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and creates Aircraft Tracking Task Force (ATTF) to focus on identifying near-term options for global tracking of aircraft, including a concept of operations (Conops).

May 12-13 • International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) holds Special Meeting for Global Flight Tracking in Montreal, Canada, and reaches consensus to track all airline aircraft. • IATA agrees to early voluntary implementation; ICAO to develop standards in parallel, while developing global standard on a parallel track.

May 26-27 • International Telecommunications Union (ITU) holds Expert Dialogue on real-time monitoring of flight data in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. • ITU asked to provide necessary spectrum allocations for emerging flight-data monitoring needs and work with ICAO to implement it.

June 11-13 • IATA ATTF holds first formal meeting and launches effort to define current state of flight-tracking with member and non-member airlines, air navigation service providers.

September • IATA ATTF to present preliminary Conops for global flight-tracking to ICAO in Montreal, Canada.

December • IATA communicates ATTF findings to member airlines.

2015 February• ICAO to hold high-level safety meeting in Montreal, Canada to approve Conops from ATTF and move forward in developing a global flight-tracking standard.

2016 • ICAO to publish global flight-tracking standards.

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