Airlines look for ways to swiftly adopt aircraft tracking system after MH370 disappearance

DOHA (Reuters) - Mystified by the loss of Malaysian jetliner MH370, some airlines will not wait for an industrywide solution to keeping track of their aircraft flights in real time, provided products are offered at the right price, industry executives said on Monday.

The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 almost three months ago has prompted calls for real-time tracking of planes and even continuous streaming of black box data. "It must not happen again," Mr Tony Tyler, director general of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said at its annual meeting in Doha on Monday.

IATA, which brings together over 200 airlines accounting for 84 per cent of the world's air traffic, is planning to put aircraft tracking proposals to the United Nations' International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) in September, which in turn says a standard could be in place in two to three years.

However, individual airlines could move sooner than that, Mr Tyler said. "It is the sort of issue where before regulations actually start to bite, airlines will already have made arrangements, they aren't going to wait," he told Reuters on the sidelines of the meeting.

Qatar Airways, hosting the meeting, said the technology to track planes was available today, citing the possible adaptation to tracking of the existing ACARS Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System as an example, which can deliver communication in short bursts, although it is not continual. "Qatar is keen to explore this," chief executive Akbar al Baker told reporters.

Industry-owned air transport communications company SITA also said on Monday it was developing a new tracking system that uses technology already installed in aircraft and SITA's despatch and operations systems.

It said the system was currently being evaluated by several airlines and because it uses system that are already installed, it won't mean extensives costs for airlines.

Industry sources also said Malaysia Airlines was already looking at options that it will implement as soon as possible across its fleet.

For airlines though, a big issue will be ensuring costs for any technology do not spiral out of control, given the industry's already tight profit margins.

IATA said on Monday its airlines would collectively make a profit of US$18 billion (S$22.6 billion) this year, cutting its forecast from a previous estimate of US$18.7 billion in March. That would equate to a net profit margin of 2.4 per cent, compared with 1.5 per cent in 2013. "If it is prohibitively expensive we have to see where the cost benefit is," Mr Andrew Herdman, director-general of the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines told Reuters. "It is not a question of affordability, that is the wrong way of thinking of it in terms of individual airlines. But if it makes sense, the cost is not the issue."

Airline executives at the IATA meeting told Reuters that ultimately costs would be passed onto passengers, rather than governments. "If we ask governments, some countries, to do this, then there is the issue of national security and defence," Mr Osamu Shinobe, president and chief executive of All Nippon Airways , said.

Howeever, Mr Willy Walsh, the chief executive of British Airways and Iberia's parent ICAG, said that there were still "issues that need to be understood". "I have no problem with something mandatory if it is a sensible solution and we seek to maximise the use of existing technology," he added.

Aircraft operated by IAG send out perfomance data through ACARS every 30 minutes and this includes their position, he added.

Meanwhile Air France-KLM said in a statement that since 2009 Air France aircraft have transmitted their position every 10 minutes. That is reduced to one minute if there is an abnormal deviation. KLM has decided to follow suit, it added. "The measures we have already implemented in this field are efficient and easy to apply," said Alexandre de Junaic, chairman and chief executive of Air France-KLM.

SITA also said the enhanced tracking capability it was ready to introduce used existing technology that it provides and is already installed on aircraft. "The solution does not call for extensive additional cost or investment by the airlines," SITA added in a statement.

Mr Tyler said IATA's recommendations to be put to ICAO in September would focus only on the tracking of planes and not involve the continuous streaming of data, which would be more complicated to implement. "We must find a way of doing it that doesn't add significantly to cost. Margins are very thin in the business," he told Reuters.

Asked why it had taken so long to make proposals on tracking, despite calls for action after the Air France 447 crash in 2009, ICAO's president Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu said it simply took time to find a global consensus. "We have set in motion a process now," he told Reuters.

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