Europe safety chief backs flight-tracking after MH370

PARIS Thu May 8, 2014 5:17pm EDT

A screen on board Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200ER flight MH318 shows the plane's flight path as it cruises over the South China Sea from Kuala Lumpur towards Beijing, at approximately the same point when on March 8 flight MH370 lost contact with air traffic controllers, at approximately 1.30am March 17, 2014. REUTERS/Edgar Su

A screen on board Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200ER flight MH318 shows the plane's flight path as it cruises over the South China Sea from Kuala Lumpur towards Beijing, at approximately the same point when on March 8 flight MH370 lost contact with air traffic controllers, at approximately 1.30am March 17, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Edgar Su

PARIS (Reuters) - Europe's top aviation regulator has called for international action to address concerns raised by the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, while acknowledging delays in responding to a similar disaster in 2009.

The head of the European Aviation Safety Agency, Patrick Ky, told Reuters he supported better flight tracking of passenger jets as a United Nations agency prepares to discuss the issue at a meeting of aviation powers next week.

Ky said in an interview that quicker action was needed than after an Air France jet crashed in the Atlantic five years ago.

"We really need to do something because after the Air France catastrophe there was a certain number of recommendations, and I am not sure we as an aeronautical community were quick enough in taking up all those recommendations," he said. "Now it is really time that we do something about this."

Pressure for improved tracking of aircraft has increased since the Malaysian jet vanished exactly two months ago. A search for the aircraft and its black boxes in the southern Indian Ocean has so far failed to produce results.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a U.N. body, has called a meeting of about 40 countries plus representatives of airlines, pilots and regulators to discuss the issue in Montreal on May 12-13.

"The fact that the industry has been invited is a very good sign because the airlines are willing to investigate ways to deal with this issue," Ky said.

The head of the International Air Transport Association, representing most of the world's airlines, said in April the disappearance of a passenger jet "must not happen again".

An IATA spokesman said airlines had set up a task force in April to look into flight tracking and had focused on ways of preventing accidents since the Air France crash.

A probe into the loss of Air France flight 447, which triggered a two-year $50 million search to find its black boxes, led to a series of recommendations by French investigators.

But some of the proposals that experts say might have helped in a case like MH370 remain bogged down in talks among affected parties, with no timetable for putting them into effect.

These include France's suggestion that EASA and ICAO should both make it mandatory "as quickly as possible" to have a system that would transmit location data as soon as a plane gets into an emergency, assuming it is flying over water or remote areas.

NO TO BLACK-BOX STREAMING

Safety officials say that following the Malaysian crash, the aviation world is rallying around the case for flight tracking.

"On flight tracking I think technically a number of things can be done. The problem is deciding who receives the information, who is responsible to do what in the event of (an alarm) and who pays for the transmission costs," Ky said.

The fate of MH370, whose data links abruptly stopped their transmissions in what investigators believe may have been a deliberate human act, has also pushed the importance of ensuring such devices cannot be turned off high up the agenda.

Ky however rejected calls by some satellite companies to transmit telemetry data from the cockpit, suggesting black boxes will remain on board for some time to come despite difficulties in finding them whenever a plane crashes in the wilderness.

"Technically it is difficult because of the bandwidth requirements that would be needed to have continuous streaming, plus the costs, so I think this has been abandoned by almost everybody," Ky said.

The ICAO tracking summit is expected to study options but put the onus on aerospace companies and airlines, which must pay for any new onboard equipment, to come up with detailed plans.

EASA has already set out a carrot and stick approach by recommending changes in the design of black box beacons last week, while suggesting this could be waived if the industry came up with a better idea for locating aircraft within 6 nautical miles - a small fraction of the radius for the search for MH370.

Officials believe that focusing on what a system does, rather than how it should work, would cut through red tape and counter criticism that regulation can be bureaucratic and slow.

(editing by David Stamp)