| NEW YORK/MONTREAL
NEW YORK/MONTREAL May 14 In the aftermath of
the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370, companies
that provide satellite connections and WiFi service to airplanes
are battling for a lucrative new market: selling plane-tracking
The United Nation's aviation agency gave industry the green
light on Tuesday to improve aircraft tracking on a voluntary
basis while it develops mandatory standards.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak added pressure by
calling for the agency to require real-time tracking of civilian
aircraft, a mandate that could create a market worth billions of
dollars to companies that make the systems, such as Inmarsat PLC
and Iridium Communications Inc.
Satellite providers say their systems could have easily
tracked the missing Malaysian jet, had the plane's tracking
equipment remained in operation. The plane disappeared from
tracking screens on March 8 during a routine flight from Kuala
Lumpur to Beijing, presumably because its transponder was shut
Many airlines already track their planes through status
updates from the plane, a system known as ACARS. The providers
say existing technology could allow for more effective
monitoring of flight paths. But authorities must ultimately make
a political decision over what sort of tracking they should
require, and whether equipment such as transponders should be
designed so pilots cannot disable them in flight. Authorities
believe that's what happened with the Malaysian flight.
By allowing industry to voluntarily improve tracking before
regulations become official, the United Nations International
Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) opened the door to much wider
use of the existing technology. It did not indicate any leaning
toward a particular technology.
MARKET BATTLE BEGINS
A battle royal for share of the tracking market has already
begun. Inmarsat, a satellite company whose data helped track the
missing Malaysia Air flight, has offered to provide tracking at
no cost to airlines.
Rivals say Inmarsat's offer of free service is misleading,
since outfitting a jet with the system could cost more than
$100,000. The competitors say their products can track planes
with existing technology and have other benefits besides.
"We think it's a bit disingenuous, what (Inmarsat) is
saying," Matthew Desch, Iridium's chief executive, told Reuters.
Iridium's network of 66 low-Earth orbit satellites already
receive cockpit data and cover the globe. It is launching new
satellites over the next two years to provide greater tracking
ability to new generation air traffic control systems.
"If it was mandated that satellite data links needed to be
on every aircraft, I think we're going to get the primary
benefit of that, not Inmarsat," Desch said. "Their system is
extremely expensive compared with ours."
If ICAO said only Inmarsat was mandated, then that would
pose a threat, he acknowledged.
"But I just don't think that would be part of the
solution," he said. "That would be an extremely expensive
solution to a problem that is being solved many other ways, much
less expensively -- either today through existing technologies
or in the future through Aireon."
Aireon is Iridium's next-generation system to enable
air-traffic controllers to see all planes moving globally in
real time, he said. Canada, Ireland, the UK and Denmark are
among those already signed with Aireon. The United States is
The rivalry underscores that many technologies exist to
"Today the technology exists to equip all planes with all
the measures for location that are necessary and to allow us to
have more information in real time than we have today," Marwan
Lahoud, chief strategy and marketing officer at Airbus Group
, said on France's BFM radio. "It is not a question of
technology, but a political question and a question of the will
"You have a smartphone like everyone and you know how often
this sort of equipment doesn't work or else works with a delay,"
he said. "So what is important is that if the authorities decide
to equip planes, they must be equipped with systems which are
certified for aerospace and are reliable."
USING WIFI FOR TRACKING
Aireon and other systems are among the parts of a broader
next-generation air traffic control system being rolled out this
decade. With more precise location data, air traffic controllers
can space airplanes more closely, allowing for more flights.
Desch said Iridium didn't design its system to find a
missing aircraft. "It is designed to make air travel more
efficient and safe, cutting down on fuel expense and allowing
more jets in the airspace.
"And by the way it knows where every airplane is all the
Another avenue for better tracking exists in satellite-based
Wifi systems that are increasingly being used on airplanes.
"We have the tracking information that's coming off the
plane," said Don Buchman, vice president at ViaSat, which
supplies connectivity to JetBlue Airways, United Airlines and
ViaSat's system tracks latitude and longitude of aircraft,
and could pinpoint the location to between four and 10 nautical
miles, the same standard that ICAO is considering, he said.
To be sure, both the Iridium and ViaSat systems are
vulnerable should a pilot or hijacker shut down the transmitter
during flight, severing the data link. Airplanes generally are
equipped with circuit breakers as a precaution against an
Satellite tracking even in remote regions is already
possible. Indeed, Iridium's Desch said the variety of systems
available is one factor slowing the decision by nations on which
tracking system to adopt.
National aviation regulators and ICAO committees "are going
to go through all different solutions," he said. "I would
encourage them to use existing technologies where they can."
(Additional reporting by Tim Hepher; Editing by Frank McGurty
and Leslie Adler)