International Aviation Group Says Plane Tracking Is A Priority

The U.N. organization that oversees aviation is taking a big step toward requiring global satellite tracking of all commercial flights. The move follows the disappearance of a Malaysian Airlines jet.

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And when that Malaysia Airlines jet disappeared, it was surprise to many that it wasn't being tracked. Now airlines and international aviation authorities have agreed to come up with ways to track commercial airlines flights wherever they are in the world. NPR's David Schaper reports on the challenges that will need to be overcome for that to actually happen.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: It still sounds impossible that in this technological day and age, a large modern Boeing 777 with 239 people on board could just disappear over the ocean and that two months later aviation authorities and military search crews from the best equipped nations in the world still cannot locate even a trace of that aircraft and really have no clear idea of exactly where the plane may have gone down.

PERRY FLINT: The loss of MH370 was a very unique situation.

SCHAPER: Perry Flint is a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association.

FLINT: This identified an issue that the industry is now moving forward to address.

SCHAPER: That issue is that some commercial airplanes cannot be tracked by satellite or radar and can actually be lost if certain transponders and communication systems are disabled or lose power. So the airlines met over the past two days in Montreal with the International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO, the UN agency that oversees aviation regulations worldwide.

ICAO's Nancy Graham says the airlines agreed to not wait for new regulations and will voluntarily make improvements.

NANCY GRAHAM: The industry is absolutely in solidarity about putting in place global tracking.

SCHAPER: An industry taskforce is working to identify which technologies would immediately improve the tracking of aircraft. Kevin Hiatt of the International Air Transport Association says much of that technology already exists, but...

KEVIN HIATT: Not all areas of the globe are covered and not all aircraft are created equal and have the same equipage.

SCHAPER: So Hiatt says the taskforce will recommend, by September, which potential solutions would make the most sense for certain types of planes around the world. He says some simple technical improvements or software upgrades could begin before the end of the year. At the same time, the ICAO will work on developing a long term industry standard for the global tracking of commercial aircraft that is agreeable to its 191 member states.

Again, ICAO's Nancy Graham.

GRAHAM: But a standards takes longer, takes time. That process of collaboration is long, but it's important.

SCHAPER: So it still may be some time before we have the ability to track any flight anywhere in the world, and it's been five years since French crash investigators recommended better global flight tracking after the crash of Air France Flight 447 in the Atlantic. Nonetheless, Graham says the international flying public shouldn't be too concerned.

GRAHAM: So you rode an escalator up here from the first floor. Your ride on that escalator was much more dangerous than anywhere travelling around the world today.

SCHAPER: Travelling by air, says Graham and others, is the safest mode of transportation ever devised. But despite all of its technological advancements and sophistication, the disappearance of MH Flight 370 and its 239 passengers still bewilders. David Schaper, NPR News.

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