KUALA LUMPUR Global standards to track aircraft in real time may not be ready for two to three years, a senior official with the U.N. aviation agency said on Tuesday, although the process could be accelerated as airlines adopt voluntary measures.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has formed a group to come up with methods for tracking by the end of September, responding to public concern following the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 mystery.
IATA said its members would implement measures voluntarily, before any rules were in place.
"Typically a global standard can take 2-3 years to put in place," Nancy Graham, director of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Air Navigation Bureau, told reporters in Kuala Lumpur.
"This will expedite that because we will have learned a lot of lessons from the voluntary path."
Graham was speaking after a conference of aviation regulators and industry officials in the Malaysian capital tried to flesh out details of new tracking standards two weeks after ICAO nations agreed to set up the task force.
But the meeting left questions unanswered over how much the new systems could cost - and feed through to higher fares - and how smoothly they could be implemented across global airlines.
"The bigger airlines that fly globally might have the cash for it, but the smaller players already have their margins stressed and don't have much money left to spare," said one airline industry official who asked not to be identified.
Regular flight-tracking was one of the key recommendations of French investigators after the loss of Air France Flight 447 in 2009. Aviation experts say previous attempts to reach agreement on tracking and other reforms in the aftermath of that disaster have been delayed by uncertainties over the cost and control of infrastructure.
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 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.
Graham rejected criticism that regulators and the industry should have been quicker to act on calls for real-time tracking following the 2009 disaster.
She said ICAO examined three different reports on the Air France crash and made 25 recommendations as a result. Real-time tracking would not have prevented that or the MH370 disappearance, she said.
"There was no requirement to develop a rule for global tracking out of the Air France incident," Graham said. "That does not mean we should not do it. It just means we should not connect the two together."
(Editing by Stuart Grudgings and Nick Macfie)