Countries agree on system for satellites to track flights

Experts want flight tracking to be made mandatory, to avoid a repeat of the MH370 tragedy. The plane remains missing but a 2m-long flaperon (left), washed up on Reunion Island more than three months ago, has since been confirmed to be from the ill-fa
Experts want flight tracking to be made mandatory, to avoid a repeat of the MH370 tragedy. The plane remains missing but a 2m-long flaperon (left), washed up on Reunion Island more than three months ago, has since been confirmed to be from the ill-fated flight.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A global push for all commercial flights to be tracked - after a Malaysia Airlines jet disappeared in March last year - has made good progress.

At a United Nations meeting on Wednesday, countries agreed to allocate a specific radio frequency for satellites to receive transmissions from aircraft.

Known as automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B), such information is currently sent only to other aircraft and to ground stations.

TIME NEEDED FOR IMPLEMENTATION

The UN's civil aviation arm, the International Civil Aviation Organisation, has proposed that aircraft be tracked every 15 minutes when flying over oceans and remote areas. The plan is for the ruling to take effect from November next year, though some airlines have asked for more time. A more likely implementation date is 2018, experts said.

The agreement at the World Radiocommunication Conference in Geneva, Switzerland, could pave the way for 100 per cent flight coverage, compared with just 30 per cent today.

This is because ground stations are now unable to receive signals from flights over vast oceans and remote regions.

The next step is for flight tracking to be made mandatory to avoid another MH370 tragedy, experts said.

Flight MH370 vanished on March 8 last year while en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board, and presumably plunged into the Indian Ocean. Amid a massive hunt for the Boeing 777 jet, a 2m-long flaperon washed up on Reunion Island more than three months ago.

It has since been confirmed that the wing part came from the ill-fated flight and the search for the main wreckage continues.

After urgent discussions with industry players, the UN's civil aviation arm, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), has proposed that aircraft be tracked every 15 minutes when flying over oceans and remote areas.

The plan is for the ruling to take effect from November next year, though some airlines have asked for more time.

A more likely implementation date is 2018, experts said.

Mr Michael Daniel, a retired United States Federal Aviation Administration official, said the new satellite frequency allocation agreement is of little use without ICAO standards to fully require the use of current aircraft tracking technology.

"It is up to the UN body, regulatory authorities and airlines to require real-time tracking," he said.

The UN's International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which spearheaded the discussions on the radio frequency allocation for aircraft, said it has responded "in record time to the expectations of the global community on the major issue concerning global flight tracking".

ITU's Radiocommunication Bureau director Francois Rancy said the allocation of frequencies for space stations to receive ADS-B signals from aircraft will enable real-time tracking of aircraft anywhere in the world.

"We will continue to work with ICAO and other international organisations to enhance safety in the skies," he added.

British satellite communications firm Inmarsat, which has been working on an alternative system to provide airlines with flight tracking capabilities, said: "We support any improvement in aviation safety... and look forward to further details on how this system will be put into operation."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 13, 2015, with the headline 'Countries agree on system for satellites to track flights'. Print Edition | Subscribe