Missing AirAsia flight puts pressure on aircraft tracking debate



After the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, one of the biggest questions was why we didn't know where the plane was.
In 2014, why couldn't — why hadn't — we put a GPS on every plane so we always knew where it was? Airline industry officials said it was more complicated than that, of course — but most everyone agreed a solution had to be found to prevent future losses. But the industry said that would take time.
Then AirAsia Flight 8501 went missing on Sunday.
While family and friends await news about loved ones aboard AirAsia 8501, the industry is facing scrutiny for moving slowly on the issue.
The Aircraft Tracking Task Force, created in the wake of MH370 in March, presented its recommendations to the International Civil Aviation Organization just this month.
The task force recommended that airlines first take stock of what kind of tracking is currently available to them. Then, in the near-term (approximately the next year), consider upgrading their equipment to recommended "performance criteria." That criteria is more about using current tools better than adding new tracking systems, or adopting higher-tech solutions like streaming data from plane's black boxes to control centers. In the medium-term — considered to be the next three years — the task force recommends airlines monitor new tracking technologies as they become available. In other words, we're years away from a solution.
“Some [airlines] already exceed the report’s suggested performance criteria," said International Air Transport Association CEO Tony Tyler. "For others, closing the gap may take more than a 12-month time line for every aircraft.”
“In the meantime, passengers can be reassured that MH370 was an extremely rare, if not unique event," Tyler said, unfortunately just weeks before AirAsia Flight 8501. "Even though aircraft cannot be tracked in all cases, flying is safe. Over 100,000 flights operate safely every day. And new technology will play an important role in making the system even more robust.”
He's right about aviation being relatively safe: This year, there have been 111 plane crashes — the lowest since the 1920s, according to the Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archives. However, the number of dead could be the highest since 2005, at 1,320, if the 162 people aboard Flight 8501 have died.
"As far as the industry goes, one event is too many,” said Kevin Hiatt, senior vice president for safety and flight operations at IATA, in the wake of MH370 and before the latest tragedy.
But MH370 was not the one event the industry should have needed. Air France Flight 447, which crashed in the Atlantic Ocean in 2009, was missing for two years before the wreckage was found. Recommendations followed that tragedy as well.
The task force's recommendations are incremental, in line with the slow pace of a behemoth industry, but patience outside the industry is wearing thin.
The European Union was considering requiring aircraft tracking, to the chagrin of major airlines, even before AirAsia. Although the airlines are concerned about government mandates, they may soon see more of them if progress is not made more quickly.
Even if every aircraft around the globe could be tracked 24/7, it would not necessarily prevent tragedies. But it could at least provide answers.




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