Meeting the challenge of inflight safety

The airline industry’s “willingness to learn important lessons from rare events” was highlighted last year by the ICAO’s Adhoc Working Group on Aircraft Tracking as one of the key reasons for its impressive safety record.

The lessons learned from the loss of Air France flight 477 and Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 ultimately led to the Global Aeronautical Distress and Safety System (GADSS) Concept of Operations, which aimed to spur airlines on to pursue global flight tracking more quickly.

The four key components of the GADSS Concept of Operations are:

  • Automated reporting of an aircraft’s position every 15 minutes in normal operations (to be mandated from 8 November 2018)
  • Automated reporting of an aircraft’s position at least once every minute in abnormal operations
  • Autonomous Distress Tracking (to be mandated for new aircraft from 2021)
  • Flight Data Recovery

What is clear from these key components is that regulators are, to an extent, playing catch-up with the technology that is already available today. SITAONAIR’s AIRCOM FlightTracker, for example, not only enables automated reporting in both normal and abnormal operations, it can also be configured to help airlines meet the one-minute distress tracking standard – five years before this is due to be mandated.

Given that the technology to track aircraft already exists, the question is ‘why it isn’t already being implemented across every airline?’

The answer is that airlines need support to better use the technology that is already on their aircraft. This is to make sure they can be tracked wherever they are in the world. Understanding the challenge faced by airlines was key to our development of FlightTracker.

FlightTracker can accommodate the equipment found on every kind of aircraft, from the most basic, to those operating FANS (Future Air Navigation System) and everything in between.

On sophisticated modern aircraft, FlightTracker is able to interact with the flight management computer to request automated position reports at set intervals. But, at the other end of the scale, if an aircraft is operating without FANS, or even ACARS or ADS-B, and is using only a Mode S Transponder/Radar, we are able to approximate its position using multilateration.

Singapore Airlines

During the development of FlightTracker, we worked closely with airlines to understand the challenges they faced when implementing flight-tracking technology across their fleets.

A good example of this cooperation is our work with Singapore Airlines. Ahead of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore’s introduction earlier this year of a 15-minute flight-tracking mandate for all Singapore-based carriers, we were asked to support Singapore Airlines in implementing technology that could automatically manage requests for an aircraft’s position data, and issue alerts if a flight deviated from its path.

One challenge that emerged when Singapore Airlines began using an earlier version of FlightTracker was the number of alerts that were being generated unnecessarily.

The reason was that while FlightTracker was asking aircraft to report their position every 14 minutes, it can sometimes take an aircraft more than a minute to respond when it is outside of VHF coverage. The delay in response was sometimes causing alerts to be sent to Singapore Airlines, which it needed to escalate to be satisfied the aircraft was not in distress. Our simple solution was to request position data every 10 minutes instead.

Airlines can pre-define the parameters that will cause FlightTracker to issue an alert, and FlightTracker can then help airlines to go through their internal processes for escalating that alert, for example automatically sending the pilot a request for further information.

Crucial automation

Automation of both tracking and alerting is crucial, as airlines cannot hope to monitor every stage of every flight manually. This is especially true with airspace expected to become increasingly crowded in the years ahead. Between now and 2030, it is anticipated that 500 new airports will be built globally to cope with increasing passenger demand, and in Europe alone, this will mean an extra 16.9 million flights will need tracking.

Airlines that use FlightTracker not only have access to multiple sources of position data, but our partnership with aviation software company FlightAware means they are presented with this data in a way that is easy for them to understand. Their ground staff can carry on with their operations without worrying about when information is going to come in, and in what sequence.

FlightTracker is a product that is constantly being evolved to meets airlines’ needs.

We already give airlines access to 70 different sources of weather data, and soon our customers will have access to automated weather alerting, including significant meteorological information (SIGMET) advisories and turbulence forecasts.

While we have developed FlightTracker to meet the challenge of in-flight safety, the operational benefits are also worth considering. For example, the tracking data FlightTracker provides is good enough to allow airlines to see when an aircraft is going into the hold, and it can give position updates every couple of minutes. This means that airlines don’t have to waste time preparing for a flight that is not yet able to land.

A growing number of airlines are seeing the benefits of implementing automatic flight-tracking technology well in advance of the ICAO’s November 2018 mandate. Our message to airlines is simple: you can meet this mandate now, and you can do it easily across your fleet, because FlightTracker is so quick and easy to deploy.

Our experience working closely with airlines means that we are able to provide you not only with the software to enable automatic flight-tracking, but also the understanding and support to make it work for you.

Paul Gibson, Portfolio Director, AIRCOM, SITAONAIR

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