Ten months after industry leaders pledged to swiftly institute universal tracking of airliners, international aviation officials are set to discuss why voluntary efforts have stalled and what mandatory standards are needed.
But participants in this week’s International Civil Aviation Organization safety conference in Montreal won’t be endorsing any speedy fixes. Proposals calling for routine satellite surveillance of all commercial aircraft, including those flying long overwater or polar routes beyond ground-based radar coverage, would take years to implement. And the proposals, according to industry officials, are less ambitious than many of the tracking concepts proposed decades ago on both sides of the Atlantic.
After the mysterious disappearance in March of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, airline industry leaders, facing public outcry, promised speedy action. Since then, however, some airlines have balked at the costs of upgrading tracking equipment, criticized ICAO’s timelines, and called deadlines to implement changes proposed by a global trade association “practically unachievable.”
Representatives to ICAO, an arm of the United Nations, are expected to call for tracking planes at least every 15 minutes during routine flights. In cases of an emergency or deviation from normal operation, location signals would be sent a minimum of once every minute. Many airlines already have communications equipment and software that exceed those goals, while others have been reluctant to make the investments in hardware and satellite services.
The conference is expected to support—starting with planes manufactured in 2020—automatic streaming of some flight data if onboard systems go dangerously awry, planes veer off course or pilots struggle to control aircraft.
In addition, the organization is moving to adopt standards for tamper-proof distress signals, along with black box recorders intended to detach from the aircraft and float in water in the event of a crash.
This week’s sessions won’t yield binding decisions, but establish a direction for further discussions and work well into the next decade. Yet with some 100,000 airline flights taking off daily world-wide, some of the documents prepared for the meeting highlight the short-term dangers of eroding public trust.
In the weeks after Flight 370 disappeared, Tony Tyler , chief executive of the International Air Transport Association, the industry’s premier trade group which represents more than 200 carriers, vowed to improve how planes are tracked.
“In a world where our every move seems to be tracked, we cannot let another aircraft simply disappear,” Mr. Tyler said at the time. To this day, no physical evidence of the plane, which was carrying 239 people, has been found, and search efforts have faced a series of setbacks.