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By Al-Zaquan Amer Hamzah
KUALA LUMPUR May 26 (Reuters) - Major airlines want real-time tracking for commercial aircraft following the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 and cost is not a concern, a senior official with the United Nations' aviation agency said on Monday.
The mystery surrounding MH370, which vanished en route to China, has sparked a global drive for a system that would enable controllers to pinpoint the exact route and last location of an aircraft. A nearly three-month-long international search has so far failed to find any trace of the Malaysian plane.
Members of the International Civil Aviation Organization's (ICAO) governing council agreed earlier this month on the need for global tracking, although they did not commit to a binding solution or timeline.
Instead, the global airline industry group, International Air Transport Association (IATA), agreed to come up with proposals for better tracking by the end of September. IATA said its members would implement measures voluntarily, before any rules were in place.
"In principle the community has agreed. There's no question this is something we need to do," Nancy Graham, director of ICAO's Air Navigation Bureau, told reporters in Kuala Lumpur.
"We are developing the voluntary path and a rule for the future. We intend to have regulation to support that globally."
Asked whether the cost of implementing new standards was a stumbling block for airlines, Graham said: "Not at all, they're absolutely in solidarity. There's no price you can put on safety or certainty on where the aircraft are."
Graham was speaking at the start of a two-day experts' conference sponsored by Malaysia's government on real-time monitoring of flight data. The meeting will not decide on flight-tracking reforms, but could generate new proposals.
Experts say the technology to implement real-time tracking is available and relatively simple, but some aspects have raised concerns about data privacy from pilots, aircraft manufacturers and airlines.
Inmarsat Group, a satellite company whose data helped track MH370, has offered to provide airlines with tracking at no cost. Rival firms such as Iridium Communications, however, say outfitting a jet with the tracking system could cost more than $100,000.
Malaysian investigators suspect someone shut off MH370's data links making the plane impossible to track, prompting Prime Minister Najib Razak to call for the ICAO to adopt real-time tracking of civilian aircraft.
The flight, a Boeing 777 jet, vanished from civilian radar screens less than an hour after take-off from Kuala Lumpur en route to Beijing on March 8.
PRIVACY, SAFETY BALANCE
Based on a complex analysis of satellite signals, MH370 is believed to have crashed in the southern Indian Ocean off Australia. But no trace has been found since it went missing with 239 people on board, despite the most intensive search in commercial aviation history.
Graham said ownership and protection of flight data were among the issues that needed to be ironed out before a global tracking system was put in place. "Aviation is the first global business and in global businesses you have to determine where the lines of boundary are," she said.
A European proposal to increase the maximum amount of recording time on cockpit voice recorders to 20 hours from two hours ran into opposition from Airbus and pilot groups.
Some pilots expressed concerns about longer recordings, saying they could be misused by employers, released without their authorisation or used in court without their permission.
If found, the voice recorders on MH370 will contain recordings of only the last two hours of the flight, which would be several hours after the plane disappeared from radar off Malaysia's east coast.
Malaysia's minister of communications, Ahmad Shabery Cheek, told the conference that regulators and the industry needed to find a better balance between privacy and safety.
"(It's) between allowing a pilot the ability to shut down electronic components in emergencies, or mitigating that power. These are issues we will also have to consider in trying to come to a standard," he said.
Graham denied there had been a lack of urgency in implementing flight-tracking reforms following the 2009 crash of an Air France jetliner in the Atlantic Ocean, and said tracking would not have prevented the MH370 disaster.
"Global tracking would not have prevented this incident," she said. "We don't know right now what caused this accident." (Writing by Stuart Grudgings; Editing by Christopher Cushing and Miral Fahmy)