MH370: Panel to plug gaps in aircraft tracking

MH370: Panel to plug gaps in aircraft tracking
Tony Tyler, director general and chief executive officer (CEO) of International Air Transport Association (Iata).

A high-level team will look at how better to track commercial aircraft in the wake of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370.

The team will include experts from the United Nations' civil aviation arm, airlines and makers of plane communication systems, among other stakeholders.

The announcement came as Malaysia Airlines released the transcript of the final audio communications from the cockpit of the ill-fated flight.

The panel of 20 to 30 members will assess gaps in commercial aircraft tracking and how to plug them. It will submit its first report to the International Civil Aviation Organisation by year-end, said the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which is leading the initiative.

There is an "urgent" need to address the matter after MH370 disappeared more than three weeks ago, said Mr Tony Tyler, chief executive officer and director-general of the global airline body.

"We cannot let another aircraft simply disappear," he said at the opening of an industry conference in Kuala Lumpur yesterday.

"In a world where our every move seems to be tracked, there is disbelief both that an aircraft could simply disappear and that the black box is so difficult to recover," Mr Tyler added.

The black box contains the cockpit voice and flight data recorders which capture conversations between pilots in the cockpit as well as between them and air traffic controllers.

It also preserves data on the position and speed of the aircraft that can prove crucial in determining the cause of plane accidents.

The expert taskforce will examine all options available for tracking commercial aircraft as well as implementation issues including cost, IATA's senior vice-president for safety and flight operations, Mr Kevin Hiatt, told The Straits Times.

The starting point is to gather as much information as possible from the investigation team led by the Malaysian authorities.

"At the moment, we can't really tell where the actual gap was in this case so we will first have to find out more before we can look at the issues and make recommendations," he said.

All that is known for sure is that MH370 was flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8 when air traffic controllers lost contact with the aircraft 50 minutes after take-off.

Satellite data later confirmed that the plane continued to fly for more than six hours after that without being picked up by air traffic controllers. It presumably crashed into the Indian Ocean after its fuel ran out.

A massive multi-nation search for the aircraft is underway, led by Australia.

It could be many years before the full story is uncovered. In the meantime, there are things that need to be fixed, said Mr Tyler.

Apart from better tracking of planes, it is also worrying that two passengers managed to board the aircraft with stolen passports.

Mr Tyler said: "Airlines are neither border guards nor policemen. That is the well-established responsibility of governments."

Countries should make better use of passenger data that airlines provide and other tools such as Interpol's database of stolen and lost passports, he said.

"It costs the airlines millions of dollars every year to provide advance passenger information to some 60 governments. I've often wondered whether they were using it," Mr Tyler said.

Even as he shared the grief of families and friends of the 239 crew and passengers on the flight, he pointed out that while MH370 is a "tragedy", it is also a "rarity".

Last year, there were 12 major accidents that led to aircraft loss out of a total of 29.3 million flights.

This works out to one accident for every 2.4 million flights; a 14.6 per cent improvement on the average for the last five years.

This article was published on April 2 in The Straits Times.

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