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    Tracking Airplanes – Can We Do Better?

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    Posted on March 14, 2015 To

    It’s been one year since Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 vanished, taking the lives of 239 passengers and crew who have never been seen again. It is one of aviation’s greatest mysteries, despite the touting of some state-of-the-art technology to help prevent such disasters. The Boeing 777-200ER weighed about 656,000 pounds and was the length of six school buses. How did it just vanish into thin air? How could air traffic control not keep in touch with its whereabouts? How could experts not be able to find it after contact was lost? It is hard to imagine when the move of a simple package can be tracked nearly hour by hour, but a plane loaded with people still can’t be found. Live satellite tracking apparently wasn’t turned on in that plane and its route was to be mostly over land where ground-based radar stations could track it. On the news, over and over again, various scenarios played out that probably was not the case.

    More than a week after its disappearance, experts determined that the Malaysian Airlines plane most likely went down in the Indian Ocean, some 1,100 miles west of Australia. Now, aviation experts and regulators are trying to move forward with a plan that by the end of next year would mean that they would know a jet’s position every 15 minutes. In 15 minutes, a jet can travel more than 150 miles. Perhaps this would not solve every tragedy, but it would narrow a search to a more limited area.

    A formal vote on the new rules is expected by November by the International Civil Aviation Organization, which is part of the United Nations. If accepted, each participant country’s air traffic regulator would have to accept and implement this change. The second part of the changes to the proposed rules is that any plane with 19 seats or more and built after 2020 would be required to automatically transmit its location every minute if the plane deviated from its route, made an unusual move such as a sudden drop or climb, or if a fire was detected on board the aircraft. Pilots would not be allowed to disable the system.

    A world awaits what will happen to these proposals but already Malaysia, Australia and Indonesia announced plans to be among the first nations willing to test such tracking. Every day, there are some 90,000 daily flights around the world. Tracking the move of each one every minute would be quite costly. But saying that to anyone who lost a loved one on Flight 370 is not possible. It’s problematic that oftentimes that’s just what businesses, including the business of flying airplanes, do – a cost/benefit analysis to determine if it’s worth the price. Airline executives examine if it is worth it to invest in tracking devices or cockpit upgrading versus the likelihood of needing the device should such a tragedy happen. Industry experts predict that the 15-minute tracking plan would add about $2 per person to the cost of a long-distance flight. Streaming live data on exactly where the plane is at all times would cost $7 to $13 per minute, depending upon how much data is sent. A world awaits on how the International Civil Aviation Organization will vote because every life counts.