True Heading?

Was the reluctance of the airline industry to accelerate the deployment of global flight tracking solutions entirely predictable? Is it truly committed to a huge leap in situation awareness and if so, Aimée Turner ask how does the ATM community begin to respond?
Any airline investment to be made in global flight tracking initiatives was always going to be viewed against industry expectations that even despite the $18 billion profits earned this year, those figures represent an average net margin of just 2.4 per cent, amounting to less than $6 per passenger.
Global flight tracking simply to assuage public fears comes with a financial cost but also a moral prerequisite.
If you are unfortunate to lose your asset carrying hundreds of souls on board, as an airline, you’re going to have to justify why you could stump up the fifty-cent–a-pop cost of sending an ADS-C message every 10 minutes.
The knowledge flight tracking affords particularly in emergency situations would help unlock mysteries, leading to timely safety improvements and more focused search and rescue missions. It is never going to prevent many accident scenarios but it is the price of knowing what went wrong – and save an awful lot of money on the search and rescue effort to boot.
Airlines understandably continue to look for an early return on investment; hence their reluctance to equip without a clear business case that operational benefits will accrue in good time.
In its performance-based quest for near-term solutions to prevent another MH370, the airline industry has however drawn an abrupt line over any imminent prospect of real-time streaming of aircraft data which would ideally complement position intelligence, serving as the backbone to automatically transmit a range of vital operational data about aircraft performance in routine, uneventful flights.
“There are a lot more issues that come into play when it comes to the streaming of data,” says Tyler. “If you start having streaming from 100,000 flights a day, you’re going to end up with masses of data and that may be manageable or may be not manageable.”
And yet this is precisely what ICAO, whose word is global aviation’s law, says is the long term goal: an aviation cloud for real-time monitoring of flight data and something which the ITU, ICAO’s counterpart UN agency charged with developing telecommunications around the world will busy itself.
So, will a near-term bag of quick fixes that build on existing technologies already on board make any significant difference to improving global situation awareness? The ‘performance approach’ is merely a term to indicate freedom of choice in how the tracking requirement will be met and its focus on non-nominal solutions mirrors ICAO policy to steer away from specific equipage requirements where possible.
Paul Ravenhill from UK consultancy Helios says it appears that two debates were running in parallel at the ICAO summit held in mid May to discuss the subject: on the one hand asset ‘husbandry’ and on the other, the seeking of guarantees by airlines not to tighten down the performance requirements and make any solution too expensive.
Ravenhill argues that for all ICAO and IATA efforts, they ultimately would come to the conclusion that a large portion of the fleet will be simply ordered not to switch of their Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) reporting. For the remaining, airlines would have to equip with new solutions.
“If only 10 per cent of flights actually ever leave terrestrial surveillance coverage,” explains Ravenhill, “that means that 90 per cent of the time the aircraft position is known by air traffic control. After all most aircraft are equipped to send reports at frequent intervals and the only reason why they don’t, is because the airline wants to save itself some money.”
Can the air traffic management industry afford to sit on its backside and let the airline industry solve matters? Full-time tracking from space has been championed for years by safety experts as well as by those equipment suppliers and commercial satellite operators providing connectivity.
Extending surveillance through satellite-based Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) to global coverage was, after all, recommended by ICAO’s 12th Air Navigation Conference in 2012 which set out the planning horizon for the next ten years.
Although the normal development process for such system wide upgrades take considerable time, next year, Aireon, a joint venture between Iridium and air traffic control providers from four countries, will launch the first of 72 satellites to enable space-based availability of ADS-B to provide detailed GPS, altitude and speed data.
Expected to be fully operational in 2017, some providers charged with air traffic management are getting actively involved by either signing up as either charter customers of investors in the Aireon venture.
Eamonn Brennnan, chief executive of the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) which is one such investor said he was encouraged that ICAO reacted so quickly and decisively in the wake of MH370, by reaching a consensus on the near-term priority to track airline flights worldwide. “The meeting also established a framework for medium and long term efforts regarding flight tracking and in this regard the IAA is keen to play a constructive role as a partner in the Aireon space-based air traffic surveillance venture, which we believe will revolutionise flight tracking.”
On a more general level, Matt Desch who is the Iridium chief executive tells Air Traffic Management that there is confusion between ‘tracking’ and ‘surveillance’ in the discussion about what to do about avoiding another MH370.
“MH370 has inspired a lot of discussion about instituting more tracking of aircraft, using a lot of potential solutions that mostly involve satellite datalinks like Iridium’s or Inmarsat’s,” he says. “The difference in solutions I’ve seen is how much cost will be required by the airline to implement them, particularly if they are mandated as opposed to recommended,” he says.
“Surveillance on the other hand is about improving air traffic control providing a certified, trusted position for an aircraft that is real-time, even over remote regions, so that the aircraft can be more directly controlled not just for safety, but also for more efficiency with more direct routes, better altitudes, closer separations, etc.”
The essence of the debate as far as Desch is concerned is this: better surveillance means better tracking, but the reverse is unlikely the case.
Air France, which suffered the loss of an Airbus A330 over the Atlantic five years ago, went on to deploy a particularly efficient tracking system which relays information every 10 minutes to Air France’s operations control centre. In the event of a predefined abnormal deviation in altitude the reporting interval is reduced to just 1 minute.
Helios’ Ravenhill makes an interesting point in that if ICAO adopts the Air France reporting periodicity that would enable an aircraft to be located within 6nm, that means quite high reporting rates. “If the industry wants to adopt a uniform surveillance profile in oceanic airspace that had that level of update rates then it easily becomes more a surveillance than a tracking issue,” he says.
He says the key thing that the IATA task force will have to decide is whether an airline should know where its aircraft are independently from air traffic control. Should it be a shared concept where if an aircraft is under active ATC control it is derogated to its authority and reverts to the airline at all other times?
Philip Clinch, Sita’s VP of aircraft services, expects the change in airline tracking of aircraft will go beyond the current type of airline operations centre system – even that provided by Sita – that show airline flight dispatchers their aircraft positions using whatever air traffic control data is available.
He thinks airline systems will add proactive tracking, still using available air traffic control data but identifying any gaps in it and then directly requesting data from the aircraft to see if it has done anything unexpected including having stopped responding.
Airlines will be responsible for ‘take off to landing’ tracking in parallel with air traffic control providing country by country surveillance. Air navigations service providers are, after all, not responsible for following what happens to flights after they handover to the next ANSP. In the same way, controllers do not see pilots exchanges with airline flight dispatchers so they cannot see why the pilot may be requesting changes.
“Getting the position data will be relatively easy,” says Clinch. “The hard part will be identifying which aircraft movements justify setting off alerts because if the airline tracking system alerts at every movement it will have no credibility.”
He thinks identifying which movements should generate an alert will require knowledge of why the pilot is making aircraft movements, by seeing ATC instructions to the pilot and flight dispatcher communications with the pilot to exclude explainable movements.
“This aircraft tracking will be looking for a needle in a haystack and following that metaphor it will require learning a lot more about how to recognise all the pieces of hay that pose no problem to be able to identify the one needle that looks wrong,” says Clinch.
That sounds complex for sure but according to Helios’ Paul Ravenhill, this is precisely what an aviation data cloud is designed to do. He points to the centralised tracker concept proposed by Europe’s Eurocontrol in which a huge server would receive ADS-C scheduled messages from the aircraft and redistributes them to any ground users which needs this information for air traffic control.
Whether it essentially becomes a ‘blended’ solution, switching back between an airline and air traffic control depending on the surveillance ‘weather’ conditions, there still remains the vexed question of ‘hardening’ position infrastructure. That could be both in terms of hardware which means finding a way to overcome the vulnerability of an aircraft transponder which can be disabled and also a certain change in the roles and responsibilities among all stakeholders responsible for search and rescue activities.
The fact remains that the pilot today has the ability to turn an ADS-B transponder off which disables the surveillance technology. Ed Sims is the chief executive of Airways New Zealand and he questions whether full Aireon-type surveillance would have stopped Flight 370 from disappearing.
“If – and everything is a big if still – the transponders were turned off,” says Sims, “even satellite ADS-B still relies on receiving a signal. If an aircraft could fly over an hour without transmitting even though it appears to have registered on military primary radar, it’s not clear whether a satellite would have initiated a more immediate response from authorities. Aireon would however almost certainly help in more immediate location through more precise area surveillance.”
There has been criticism too that a sudden reliance on airlines to initiate action including search and rescue efforts – while it would never be acknowledged as supplanting air traffic control – is in actual fact using a back door to supplement the regular, institutionalised surveillance and alerting service.
On this we are told that the eventual ICAO concept of operations on flight tracking will include a clear definition of the objectives of flight tracking that ensures that information is provided in a timely fashion to the right people to support search and rescue, recovery and accident investigation activities, as well as, the roles and responsibilities of all stakeholders.
Here, Iridium’s Matt Desch judges that those ANSPs evaluating improving surveillance, will make decisions very deliberately and carefully, and won’t rush to implement solely due to MH370. “They are already moving down a path with ADS-B, ADS-C and space-based ADS-B that will improve their picture of traffic and help prevent aircraft from being able to go missing in the future,” he says. “I am pretty confident that the industry as a whole will improve the real-time situational awareness of aircraft, whether just better basic tracking in the near term, or better surveillance in the mid to long term.”