Aviation Experts Call for Introduction of Real-Time Flight Data

Crash site
A French gendarme helicopter flies over the moutainside crash site of an Airbus A320, near Seyne-les-Alpes, March 25, 2015. Emmanuel Foudrot/Reuters

Aviation experts have called for the introduction of real-time tracking technology in commercial aircraft in the wake of yesterday's Germanwings crash in the French Alps, the latest in a series of high-profile air disasters.

Up-to-the-minute data would allow air traffic controllers to know the exact location of aircraft and enable search and rescue teams to pinpoint crash sites, rather than relying on potentially patchy radar coverage.

Such technology would not have prevented yesterday's crash, since the route had good radar coverage and contact was only lost with the aircraft shortly before the crash occurred, but it would have allowed search and rescue teams to get to the scene more quickly, and would solve the mystery surrounding planes that go missing such as Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.

Germanwings Flight 4U 9525 went down between Digne and Barcelonette after losing contact with French air traffic controllers at 10:53 local time, one minute after reaching cruising altitude. The Airbus A320 plane, which was flying from Barcelona to Düsseldorf, then descended steadily for eight minutes without sending out a distress signal. All 150 passengers and crew died, including 72 German, 35 Spanish and a smaller number of British, American and Australian passengers.

Philippa Oldham, head of transport at the UK Institution of Mechanical Engineers, speculates that the fatal crash could have been due to hydraulic failure, which would have left the pilot unable to control the tilting of the aircraft and unable to gain sufficient altitude to clear the mountains. At present, pilots have to send emergency signals manually in such situations. Oldham suggests that having real-time data automatically relayed could assist pilots in the future.

"One of the things we don't know yet [about the Germanwings crash] is whether there was a problem which the pilot was trying to rectify and so to send an emergency signal would have taken their attention away from the problem," she says.

She points out that any introduction of such technology is being delayed due to financial factors and would require an international agreement for widespread implementation.

The current system is dependent on radar signals and information can be limited when a plane is flying through areas with poor radar coverage, such as mountainous or desert regions.

Last March, flight MH370 disappeared en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur and the aircraft is yet to be found despite an ongoing search operation.

Commercial aircraft currently rely on a two-tier radar system for providing location information. Land-based air traffic controllers monitor the position of aircraft, though these controllers change depending on whose airspace the plane is in and there can be a delay in the handover process. A secondary onboard radar system signals the plane's location, but this can be closed down from the cockpit.

Oldham says real-time information would have drastically improved the search mission for MH370, saving time, money and grief. "This technology would have been able to track exactly where MH370 went down, making this whole scenario of finding it a lot quicker," she says.

According to Chris Yates, director of UK-based aviation experts Yates Consulting, current monitoring systems are inadequate and must be updated in order to lessen the impact of future incidents similar to MH370.

"Effectively we rely on age-old technology which is basically someone talking into a microphone and transmitting his precise geographical coordinates to an air traffic control centre," says Yates.

As well as MH370, he cites Air France Flight 447 which went down in equatorial waters between Brazil and Africa in 2009. The plane had been flying over sea in an area beyond radar coverage and Air France took six hours to announce its loss. The first debris and bodies were not located until five days after the plane went down on June 1.

Yates says that, in cases such as MH370 and Air France Flight 447, real-time information can mean locating the wreckage in a reasonable time with a chance of finding survivors.

"If you have a one-minute rule [real-time data correct to one minute] then that narrows down the search area to such an extent that it can make the difference between a tens-of-miles search radius to a hundreds-of-miles search radius," he says. "This technology has profound capability and it's up to the aviation industry itself to get behind it as soon as possible."

In light of MH370, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has sped up its consideration of real-time tracking. A high-level meeting was held in early 2014 and a task force set up to work on the issue by the ICAO and International Air Transport Association (IATA). Results of this task force were presented in February and are currently being considered by ICAO member states.

An ICAO spokesperson says: "Real-time tracking was not a safety priority for aviation prior to the loss of MH370. This was mainly because our network's flights over high seas and remote airspace were already being managed safely via the existing framework of procedures, and losses such as MH370 were simply too statistically rare (essentially one every 100 million flights) to warrant priority action by ICAO's States or global airlines. This event did cause a loss of public trust in aviation safety, however, despite its unprecedented and very rare circumstances and the fact that the year it occurred in was one of the safest on record for our network."

The spokesperson adds that a new 15-minute flight-tracking standard should become applicable by the end of 2016, which means that aircraft flying in no-radar zones will have to provide regular 15-minute updates as to their position. The ICAO is also implementing a one-minute distress tracking requirement for aircraft experiencing difficulties, though this will not be adopted until next year and will not apply to new aircraft until 2021.

The spokesperson also added that the ICAO is currently undertaking a tracking exercise involving more than 12 airlines which is testing flight monitoring procedures, air traffic services and search and rescue coordination.

Correction: This article originally stated that the '15-minute' standard was already in force. In fact it has not yet been adopted by the ICAO, but is expected to come into force by the end of 2016.