Pinpointing planes

Pinpointing planes

Three years after a Malaysian airliner vanished, it’s still possible — if unlikely — for a plane to disappear. That’s changing, however, with new satellites that will soon allow flights to be tracked in real time over oceans.

New international safety standards also will start to be implemented in 2018, although the deadline for airlines to meet most of the standards is still four years away. Even then, it could be decades before the changes permeate the entire global airline fleet because some of the requirements apply only to newly manufactured planes.

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 vanished from radar on March 8, 2014, while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 passengers and crew on board. An exhaustive search of a remote corner of the southern Indian Ocean has failed to turn up the aircraft’s remains. (The Royal Australian Navy’s HMAS Success, above, scans the southern Indian Ocean for the missing airliner.)

“If the exact same thing happened today, I think we’d have the same result,” said William Waldock, a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona, and former accident investigator. “There has been change, but we haven’t put anything physical into practice yet.”

In spite of Waldock’s doubts, Atholl Buchan, director of flight operations at the International Air Transport Association, said a repeat of Flight 370 is “highly unlikely” because many airlines have already increased efforts to keep tabs on planes over open ocean where they are beyond the reach of land-based radar.

“In a few years, new systems and technology, if adopted universally by [air traffic control providers], will allow for global surveillance coverage,” he said.

Among the changes in the works:

The International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations agency, approved a series of new global safety standards in 2016 in response to Flight 370, including a requirement that airline pilots flying over ocean out of the range of radar report their position by radio every 15 minutes.

Another new standard requires new planes beginning in 2021 to be able to transmit automatic, minute-by-minute reports on their location if they’re in distress. At normal flight speeds, minute-by-minute reports would provide authorities with a search area of a little over 259 square kilometers.

Satellite flight tracking services may solve much of the problem sooner. In January 2017, Aireon, a satellite joint venture, launched the first 10 satellites in what is planned to be a 66-satellite constellation that can track airliners equipped with the latest satellite surveillance technology, known as ADS-B.

The Associated Press