Real-Time Global Flight Tracking On The Horizon

May 14, 2014

The International Civil Aviation Organization held two days of meetings in Montreal this week to discuss flight tracking, which has come front and center since the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

Airline and aviation regulators say that they agree that tracking all planes around the world is now a priority. But global standards for doing it now need to be developed, and it’s unclear how quickly that will happen.

The Wall Street Journal’s Andy Pasztor joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to discuss these issues.


  • Andy Pasztor, airline industry reporter for the Wall Street Journal.
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This is HERE AND NOW from NPR and WBUR Boston. I'm Jeremy Hobson.

A gathering of the International Civil Aviation Organization has just wrapped up in Montreal with agreement on a new effort to track airplanes wherever they go. The meeting comes more than two months after the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. Joining us, Andy Pasztor of the Wall Street Journal. He was just at the meeting in Montreal. And Andy, what are some of the steps that airlines and regulators have agreed to take?

ANDY PASZTOR: Airlines will be prodded, encouraged, whatever word we should use, to look at satellite systems that can provide real-time tracking anywhere between 15 minutes to one minute in terms of the progress of an aircraft. They'll be urged to look at emergency locator systems, which will enable searchers to know where the aircraft hit land or water if there should be an accident.

And they'll essentially be urged also to use some equipment and hardware and software on the planes, which have not been fully utilized for tracking. That's for the short-term.

HOBSON: But this is all existing equipment, right?

PASZTOR: For the most part, yes. And it's software tweaks and maybe some new services, but the real big questions, which could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per plane, is--those questions relate to getting flight data off of aircraft when there's a problem, an incident, or a maneuver or something that is abnormal.

And also it relates to the bigger question of whether you should make these systems tamper-proof, that is that no pilot or anyone else aboard the aircraft can turn them off, because that's of course what's suspected to have happened in Malaysian Airlines 370.

HOBSON: Well, would the steps that you're talking about have helped in tracking Malaysian Airlines Flight 370?

PASZTOR: No doubt about that. We would have a much better sense of where the aircraft hit the water for sure.

HOBSON: Andy Pasztor, if I were to get on a trans-Atlantic flight tomorrow, would the flight be monitored from beginning to end? Would a satellite be tracking it from beginning to end? If it were to disappear off the radar, would people have a good idea of where to go looking for it?

PASZTOR: The trans-Atlantic is a good example where there is real-time tracking either by satellites or other systems and regular reporting by aircraft on their positions. But if you were to take a flight somewhere in Asian or over the Indian Ocean or other parts of remote sections of Asia as we now know as passengers, that wouldn't be the case. And that's why both the regulators and the airlines are so eager to show that they want to plug that gap.

But plugging that gap for the long-term with the things that really need to be done is a very, very complex, and I think, controversial step. And so they're not ready to do that. So far it's short-term, it's not all P.R., some of it is substance, but it's not getting to the nub of the problems.

HOBSON: But when you say P.R., are there people who have decided not to fly because they're worried about what happened with Malaysian Airlines Flight 370?

PASZTOR: Well, of course, that's hard to tell. And I don't think that there's a groundswell of that sentiment. But I was surprised in Montreal when I was talking to people at this meeting, I was surprised at the level of concern among airlines and regulators about the public's perception of happened.

They say the public is in disbelief. They say that the public is outraged is the word you can sometimes hear. And they come back to the central point: if my cell phone, which cost $200, can tell me exactly where it is, or tell the service provider where it is, it seems inconceivable that a $220 million aircraft can't do that.

And so I think they're reacting to that public perception, which they think is real and they're concerned about it. But I don't think they're expecting the revenues and ticket sales to drop precipitously. But they want to make sure that they're on top of this consumer, you know, blow back, if you will.

HOBSON: Andy Pasztor of the Wall Street Journal, Andy, thanks so much.

PASZTOR: You're welcome.

HOBSON: You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.