World / Asia-Pacific

Airlines move to better track planes a year after Flight 370

(Agencies) Updated: 2015-03-03 16:17

NEW YORK - At 656,000 pounds fully loaded and the length of six school buses, the Boeing 777-200ER is hard to miss.

Yet nearly one year ago, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 vanished, taking the lives of 239 passengers and crew in one of aviation's greatest mysteries.

Live satellite tracking might have led searchers to the plane but it wasn't turned on for that trip. The flight was supposed to remain mostly over land, well within the coverage area of ground-based radar stations.

Airlines and regulators spent the past year debating how much flight tracking is necessary, balancing the economic costs against reassuring travelers another plane won't disappear. Now a plan is moving forward that would require airlines, by the end of 2016, to know their jets' positions every 15 minutes.

It's not the constant measures first proposed by safety advocates after Flight 370 disappeared and it's questionable if they would prevent another such loss. But it could make for quicker recovery of a missing aircraft and comfort the public. In an age when a missing iPhone or a FedEx package can be tracked, it's unfathomable that something the size of a Boeing 777 could never be found.

"The public's perception of what's acceptable has changed radically," said Todd Curtis, a former Boeing safety engineer and director of Foundation. "The industry's perception of what's acceptable is not changing as quickly."

Among airlines and regulators there is a consensus that tracking all 90,000 daily flights around the world would be too expensive, particularly for developing countries, and have limited benefits.

The industry thinks Flight 370 was an anomaly not likely to be repeated. If airlines, especially those in developing nations, are to spend money upgrading cockpits, they would rather add collision-avoidance systems that prevent fatalities.

"If you're too aggressive and stringent in setting up a requirement, countries will just elect not to participate," said John Hansman, an aeronautics professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The International Civil Aviation Organization, part of the United Nations, outlined the new tracking requirements last month. A formal vote on the rules is expected by November. Each country's air traffic regulator would then have to accept and implement them. Australia, Indonesia and Malaysia just announced plans to be among the first nations to test such tracking.

In the near team, airlines would be responsible getting updates from their planes every 15 minutes. That could be via ground radar, automatically by satellite while flying over oceans or even having the pilots verbally report their location over radios. The aviation group doesn't specify the form of communication but squarely puts the onus on the airlines. It doesn't require the airlines to spend $50,000 to $100,000 a jet to retrofit cockpits with new avionic equipment. Most of the technology is already in place.

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