Missing Flight MH370

Tougher EU rules to make tracking planes easier

A system for more frequent updates; better black boxes among the changes

BRUSSELS/PARIS • The European Union has adopted new rules to make it easier to track jetliners, stepping up international efforts to prevent a repeat of the disappearance of a Malaysia Airlines flight with 239 people on board.

The move is the first change in core legislation by a major regulator since last year's unresolved disappearance of Flight MH370 and is expected to provide impetus to efforts by the United Nations' aviation agency to set new global standards. It also incorporates recommendations from French investigators into the crash of an Air France jet in the Atlantic in 2009, whose wreckage took two years to locate.

Under the new rules announced on Wednesday, airlines will be given three years to install a means of tracking aircraft when flying in normal conditions outside radar coverage, over oceans or remote land. They must also have a system for more frequent updates in the event of an emergency: one that is robust enough to prevent a technical malfunction or someone switching it off, as some investigators suspect happened on the missing Malaysian jet.

"That would make the re-occurrence of scenarios such as (Air France) AF447 or MH370 technically impossible," a European Commission spokesman said.

The rules will be implemented progressively, and will be enforced for all EU passenger planes carrying more than 19 people and weighing more than 27 tonnes, as well as transport planes weighing more than 45.5 tonnes.

A global industry task force originally proposed that existing tracking technology should be introduced by next year, but airlines had lobbied international regulators for a delay.

The new EU legislation stops short of specifying the interval between updates, an issue with cost implications that has also divided some regulators and airlines. That will be for Europe's Aviation Safety Agency to decide after consultations. But it fits in with plans by the UN's International Civil Aviation Organisation to impose a 15-minute standard for normal flight tracking by November 2018, while leaving the door open to tighter rules favoured by some European officials in future.

European regulators have said they would ideally like a jetliner to report its position every three minutes, noting that the four-minute gap in signals from the Air France jet in 2009 left an Atlantic search area of 17,000 sq km.

Flight recorders or "black boxes" will also be improved. The maximum length of cockpit voice recordings will be increased to 25 hours from the current two hours, a long-term measure designed to cover the most extreme situations.

Recorders must either be "deployable", or ejected from an aircraft in distress to prevent them being lost, or easier to find by tripling the pinger battery life to 90 days and lowering the frequency to one easier for military vessels to spot.

One key lesson of the 2009 disaster was that using the right frequency is crucial to ensuring the black box signals carry over longer distances and can be picked up by military or coastguard personnel, who are usually the first to reach a remote crash site.

The disappearance of Flight MH370, which took off from Kuala Lumpur on March 8 last year, is one of aviation's greatest mysteries. Malaysia earlier this year confirmed that a wing part found on the French island of La Reunion in the Indian Ocean was from the plane. But no further wreckage has been found, despite an intensive Australian-led search.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 18, 2015, with the headline 'Tougher EU rules to make tracking planes easier Missing Flight MH370'. Print Edition | Subscribe