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Today TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Jason Steele explains the unexpected challenge of locating a commercial airliner, and the technologies that could aid search efforts the next time a plane goes missing.
One of the most frustrating aspects of the loss of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 has been the complete lack of answers as to where it crashed and why. After the airliner disappeared on March 8, 2014, the world was transfixed by this tragic mystery, and many observers were stunned to learn that most commercial aircraft are not equipped to transmit their locations to air traffic control.
Volumes have already been written speculating on the fate of MH370, but I wanted to draw on my experience as a commercially rated pilot (and former aircraft owner) to shed some light on why commercial aircraft aren’t equipped to broadcast a location, and how this is about to change in light of both the MH370 disaster and the more recent AirAsia crash.
Why airliners don’t transmit their locations
We live in a world where people can download an app called Find My iPad, and travelers can locate missing bags using a variety of small, inexpensive luggage tracking devices. So it seems baffling that the Boeing 777—which costs hundreds of millions of dollars, and to which we routinely entrust our safety—is not similarly equipped. Unfortunately, there’s not a simple explanation for why this is true.
To find an airplane, it must be equipped with the technology to do two things: locate itself, and transmit its location to the ground. Enabling a plane to locate itself is pretty easy, as satellite based Global Positioning Systems (GPS) receiving technology is now deployed in most commercial aircraft. GPS systems receive signals from satellites that inform pilots where the aircraft is, but this system by itself has no means of transmitting that location to the ground. Transmitting this data to air traffic control and airline operations centers requires a network of satellites and the ability to send information to controllers.
Applications like Find My iPad and luggage tracking devices simply use existing cellular data networks, which would never work in mid-air over land, let alone over the middle of the ocean. Satellite data networks that can receive and transmit this data do exist, but few people thought to utilize them for this purpose until recently.
So long as the pilots of commercial aircraft were aware of their own location, and air traffic control could separate aircraft (the term for avoiding mid-air collisions), then there was little interest in tracking the location of an aircraft from the ground. In most cases, separation is achieved through ground-based radar acting in concert with an aircraft’s transponder, which together offer a precise location to air traffic controllers. When outside of radar coverage, such as on intercontinental flights, pilots relay their positions to air traffic control over the radio.
But when the pilot turns off the transponder and the aircraft is out of radar range (like Malaysia flight 370), then the aircraft can disappear. Even when there is some radar coverage, the aircraft can still go missing within a very large area, as was the case with the more recent AirAsia disaster. In that case, it still took days to locate the aircraft, which significantly dimmed the chances of finding any survivors while compounding the grief of family members.
What technology has to offer
Even if we accept that cellular-based location applications are insufficient for aircraft use, pilots know that there are devices (costing as little as $150) that allow people on the ground to use satellites to track anyone or anything on or above the surface of the earth in real time.
So why can your average small aircraft pilot, or even a lost hiker, be tracked by satellite, yet a Boeing 777 lacks that ability? Ironically, commercial aircraft are often among the last places that the latest aviation technology is deployed. There are good reasons why new technology takes many years to be tested, certified, and deployed in commercial airliners, and I can name several recent advances that I had access to in my tiny, four seat airplane (such as electronic charts and GPS navigation) that commercial airliners only received much later. In fact, many small aircraft pilots now enjoy images from several ground based weather radar systems, while most large aircraft still rely on their own small on-board radar, which offers a less comprehensive picture.
In addition, transmitting data to the ground via satellite is expensive. When an aircraft travels at a speed of several miles a minute, data must be transmitted very often to narrow its location usefully. Constant data updates by thousands of aircraft will take up large amounts of satellite bandwidth, which is very expensive. And as many will recall, it was MH370’s transmission of engine performance data (not location) to satellites that allowed investigators to narrow the location of the aircraft to the southern Indian Ocean.
How this is about to change
Even before the Malaysia and AirAsia tragedies, regulators were looking at ways to improve search, rescue, and recovery operations. For example, it took two years to locate the wreckage of Air France flight 447, which was lost off the coast of Brazil in 2009. According to the industry publication Aviation Week, the FAA and European regulators will soon announce a new initiative to equip aircraft with tracking devices, starting with those that fly over water.
These new regulations will reportedly require these devices to be tamper resistant, and will allow authorities to locate a missing aircraft within six miles. They’ll also improve the performance and endurance of the underwater “pingers” that help locate submerged aircraft. Beyond mere location, even more data will be transmitted from the aircraft when it’s in trouble, effectively creating a black box flight data recorder on the ground.
It was stunning to learn that an aircraft that costs hundreds of millions of dollars, and contains hundreds of priceless human lives, could simply disappear. The unprecedented events of the last year have spurred action among regulators to ensure that the tragedy of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 can never happen again. Air travel remains an incredibly safe mode of transportation, but hopefully these advances in technology will continue to improve the safety record of commercial aviation.