U.N. aviation arm pledges action on flight tracking

MONTREAL Tue May 13, 2014 3:04pm EDT

The shadow of a Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) P3 Orion maritime search aircraft can be seen on low-level clouds as it flies over the southern Indian Ocean looking for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 March 31, 2014. REUTERS/Rob Griffith/Pool

The shadow of a Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) P3 Orion maritime search aircraft can be seen on low-level clouds as it flies over the southern Indian Ocean looking for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 March 31, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Rob Griffith/Pool

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MONTREAL (Reuters) - The United Nations aviation agency said on Tuesday that the industry would voluntarily begin tracking more aircraft while continuing to develop binding standards for mandatory tracking following the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in March.

But the agency gave no firm timeline for when those standards would go into effect, reflecting the challenge of reaching an agreement with the airline industry on a longstanding problem.

Speaking after a two-day meeting that ended Tuesday, the United Nations' International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) said its governing council agreed global tracking of aircraft is needed following the disappearance of flight MH370.

ICAO said the industry supported that view.

A task force set up by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) agreed to come up with solutions by the end of September for better tracking, and that the industry would start implementing them voluntarily, Dr. Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu, President of the ICAO Council, said at a press conference.

ICAO said the industry's voluntary actions will happen more quickly than ICAO mandates that would apply to all aircraft.

"The real issue is who is in charge of mandating better tracking," said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst at Teal Group, in Fairfax, Virginia.

"If it is the industry, they will have to bear all the uncertainty about technical change, negotiations with pilots and so on. It is not just about nickel and diming in safety, there is real uncertainty."

ICAO hosted the talks to discuss what can be done with current technology and what standards need to be set for new technology amid a steady increase in intercontinental air traffic.

The May 12-13 meeting at ICAO headquarters brought together 40 nations and representatives of aviation regulators, airports, airlines, air traffic controllers, pilots and radio experts.

The meeting comes more than two months after flight MH370 disappeared while en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur, with 239 people aboard.

Inadequate tracking has been among the factors blamed for failure to locate the jet, which is presumed to have crashed in a remote part of the Indian Ocean about 1,600 km (1,000 miles) northwest of Perth, Australia.

It also comes four years after French crash investigators recommended better tracking in the aftermath of a crash of an Air France flight en route from Brazil.

"Things move slowly as there are so many agencies as well as companies," Aboulafia said. Throw in uncertainty on costs and technological change that might make a major investment obsolete and it is a recipe for confusion."

ICAO noted the substantial investment required by airlines to install tracking gear. ICAO asked the meeting to recommend that any standards ICAO backs to be widely adopted as possible, not rule out emerging technologies and be part of a solution that does more than simply track flights.

(Reporting by Allison Martell in Montreal, Alwyn Scott in New York and Tim Hepher in Paris; Editing by Bernard Orr)

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