The Malaysian Airline mystery, which has now extended into weeks, reopens a discussion from last October (Get Lost and Get Found) regarding ELTs, PLBs, and tracking. Without re-thrashing all the pros and cons there seem to be a couple of logical solutions to this. Here are my thoughts—subject to change:
1. Commercial aircraft (FAR parts 121 and 135) should have a tracking device that cannot be disabled from the cockpit. We discussed Spot and Spidertracks, and there are very likely others. The key difference between these and “emergency devices”—including the approved ones—are that they leave a “breadcrumb” trail. Depending on the service, it is accurate to within a few miles and in some cases less. The ability to be found does not depend on fragile antennas that can shear off or be submerged on impact. If we can find a smart phone with an inexpensive app, why not an aircraft? The SAR community will perhaps disagree, but the present circumstance is not a strong endorsement for the existing system.
2. Personal Aircraft—those of us who fly under FAR Part 91 should have the option of what safety gear we wish to carry, in my opinion. Passengers should be informed that they cannot expect the same level of service or safety as they get from the airlines. The Coast Guard uses this approach with yachts, and if you choose to wander offshore beyond VHF range without an EPIRB or other tracking device—y’all be careful.
3. ADS-B is a reasonable alternative provided the FAA can deliver reasonable benefit at reasonable cost. Currently, I’m not convinced that we’re there. Within the Continental U.S., ground stations will largely do the monitoring—perhaps supplemented by some satellite. But land covers roughly 30 percent of the Earth’s surface. The rest is water world and there is not much radar as we’ve recently reaffirmed. Satellite tracking would save the airlines a lot of money—according to some who know, about $80 per flight hour on fuel per aircraft. Add that up over the course of a year, and you’re talking serious money. Iridium has such a system ready to be put into service, but there seems to be some bureaucratic difficulty in making the decision.
How much do you think has been spent on this current search? How much was spent searching for Air France 447, the Airbus 330 that was lost over the South Atlantic? There has to be a better way of dealing with this. Give GA the option of equipage and provide a cost effective path. For the commercial folks—perhaps there should be a cost effective mandate. Vaporliners shouldn’t be allowed to traverse the skies in the 21st century.