Singapore Airlines exploring better systems to track aircraft round the clock

Singapore Airlines (SIA) is looking to enhance its aircraft tracking capabilities following the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 last year and a push by the United Nations' civil aviation arm for the industry to address current gaps. -
Singapore Airlines (SIA) is looking to enhance its aircraft tracking capabilities following the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 last year and a push by the United Nations' civil aviation arm for the industry to address current gaps. -- PHOTO: SIA

Singapore Airlines (SIA) is looking to enhance its aircraft tracking capabilities following the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 last year and a push by the United Nations' civil aviation arm for the industry to address current gaps.

The Singapore carrier is among a handful of carriers working with a global air transport communications firm, Sita, to develop new systems to not only keep a round- the-clock eye on planes but also alert airlines when there is a problem, for example if an aircraft goes off its planned course.

The spokesman for the Singapore carrier, Mr Nicholas Ionides, confirmed the airline's participation in "trials related to aircraft tracking", but did not provide further details.

He told The Straits Times that SIA currently has flight tracking capabilities through systems such as Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (Acars).

This uses radio or satellite signals to send data that monitor, among other things, engines and other equipment on the plane.

No other details are available on SIA's current system and how it compares to Sita's new system.

Industry experts said that while advancements in technology and satellite capabilities make it possible for airlines to track flights even over vast oceans, the reality is that not all carriers have the systems and processes in place to do this.

There are no global standards either, for example, on how often planes should be tracked.

Sita's director for aircraft services, Ms Katrina Korzenowski, said: "You can have all the technology on board the aircraft but without the capabilities on the ground to capture the information and data, it's of little use."

These are serious gaps that the disappearance of Flight MH370 on March 8 exposed, and since then the global aviation industry has worked overtime to propose solutions.

Almost 11 months after the Boeing 777 aircraft flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing went missing, it has yet to be found. The plane, which was carrying 239 passengers and crew, is believed to have crashed into the Indian Ocean.

Following discussions with industry players, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) - a United Nations arm that oversees the global commercial aviation industry - has proposed that airlines be able to track planes every 15 minutes.

This is among several issues to be discussed by more than 700 participants attending ICAO's four-day high-level safety conference in Montreal, Canada, which opens today.

The big question is whether there will be a push for the 15-minute proposal to be introduced as a standard, instead of a recommendation, which means countries will have to comply.

Mr Michael Daniel, a retired United States Federal Aviation Administration official, said cost will be an issue. "There is considerable flak from the industry about costs. My own guess is that there is a higher chance it will move as a recommendation instead of a standard that all airlines must meet, but we will have to keep an eye on what Iata (International Air Transport Association) recommends."

In the end, any solution proposed must be "low-cost" to be effective, said Ms Korzenowski, though she did not say how much it would cost airlines to adopt Sita's system.

"The idea is to leverage on existing technology and capabilities, to use all parts of the communications systems that already exist to give airlines the best possible view of the location and health of their flights," she said.

It will be easier for some airlines than others though, she acknowledged.

"The challenge and cost will come for carriers that operate aircraft that need to be retrofitted to install the necessary hardware. This can be a time-consuming and expensive affair."

karam@sph.com.sg