In-flight entertainment systems are used to keep passengers entertained during long flights and prevent boredom from setting in. What if they could be used for tracking and monitoring aircraft? With the help of broadband satellite communications, an aircraft could possibly be tracked. According to IATA Flight Operations, most airlines possess this capability already but they might not be using it to the fullest. Flight tracking systems are more prevalent in the cargo-carrying industry for keeping a close tab on the cargo. The spotlight on flight tracking systems was especially intense after Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 disappeared three years ago. This tragic event shook the entire air traffic industry and made them beef up their tracking systems particularly over remote inland and oceanic areas. Contact with Flight MH370 was lost while flying over the Indian Ocean and regional authorities moved in haste, even ahead of industry guidelines.
From 1st July 2016, the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore mandates all the six Singapore based airlines to track all their aircraft every 15 minutes. From November 2018, CAAS will need position reporting of these carriers to be entirely automated. This will go a long way in improving their flight tracking capability. The Malaysian Government has also compelled Malaysia Airlines to adhere to the 15 minute tracking mandate within one year of MH370 and the latter has been able to achieve that. On a global level, the implementation will certainly take longer, considering the immense variety of operations and aircraft in use. Initially, the Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Contract position reporting mandate in the Pacific was half an hour. Through mutual consensus, it has now been reduced to fourteen minutes to adhere to the requirement. This will have the added benefit of increasing the number of flights every Pacific track can manage.
To establish the 15-minute standard, the air traffic industry and ICAO began cooperating on identifying aircraft tracking position reporting requirements. NATII was created by the ICAO to evaluate the tracking standards during a routine flight. This comprised a table-top exercise for the testing of ICAO routine tracking standard in real-time scenarios. NATII brought to attention many major operational problems that ICAO’s initial standards and recommended practices could cause. The NATII report in November 2015 submitted to ICAO detailed these issues and that is the reason ICAO adopted the requirement that operators must track the location of their aircraft every 15 minutes over the ocean. IATA and the industry were then asked by the ICAO to continue under NATII 2 to create an extra risk-based SARP in addition to guidance material to complement tracking SARPs. This is currently progressing quite well.
The SARP is attempting to introduce practical methods that enable operators to identify acceptable risk under the defined criteria. The guidance materials are written to help operators and regulators understand the implementation of both normal and proposed risk provisions. SARP and two guidance material draft chapters were presented to the ICAO Air Navigation Commission by the ICAO Secretariat in April 2016. It is expected to become effective from this month as the objective is for the entire industry to be able to adhere to the November 2018 deadline.
Some measures such as Amendment 40 to Annex 6, Part I of the Chicago Convention that consists of performance based SARPS used in data recovery of flight recorders have already been adopted by the ICAO. The amendment applies to aircraft that are certified as airworthy, from the 1st of January 2021. The amendment also needs devices to automatically transmit location data once a minute when any aircraft is in distress. As the new standards are based on performance, all the current and emerging industry technologies that meet ICAO’s specified tracking requirements could be considered. Amendment 40 also includes a standard for extending aircraft cockpit voice recorder recordings from two hours to twenty five hours. Maintenance data links, 15-minute signals, satellite communications, autonomous location transmitters, IFE and extended flight deck recordings are not insubstantial for the purpose of monitoring aircraft beyond the range of air traffic controllers. After a period of two years, the procedures and standards for a worldwide solution are almost in place and it is worth keeping a close watch on.