Can Congress Play Part in Preventing Another MH370?

WASHINGTON – Lawmakers are pressing the airline industry to develop better methods for tracking flights in the wake of the still unexplained disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in March 2014, but industry representatives cautioned that some of the options being discussed are unnecessary.

During a hearing before the House Committee on Oversight & Investigation’s Subcommittee on Transportation, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), the chairman, asserted that it is “unacceptable that today we are unable to locate or properly track commercial aircraft.”

“It is our responsibility to ensure that no commercial airliner be allowed to fly without working an operable aircraft tracking device,” Mica said.

The chairman is considering legislation that would hasten the implementation of recommendations from the International Civil Aviation Organization that would, among other things, require operators to track the location of their aircraft every 15 minutes when the planes are flying over oceanic airspace. The proposals would also require that airlines develop procedures to coordinate with air traffic control facilities in the event a position report is missed.

Mica wants the U.S. to use its influence to force all commercial aircraft landing on U.S. soil to implement the minimum ICAO standards. The organization estimates it may take up to five years before all international commercial flights are tracked in real time.

Michael Lawson, U.S. ambassador to the ICAO, acknowledged in testimony before the subcommittee that international response to incidents like the one involving MA Flight 370 “have historically been frustratingly slow.”

“However, in the aftermath of the MH 370 tragedy, the international aviation community has responded with an appropriate sense of urgency,” he said. “Weeks after the MH 370 disappearance, ICAO convened a special, multi-disciplinary meeting to study issues related to global airline flight tracking.”

Members of the organization agreed that there exists “a need to accelerate the existing timetable to track aircraft effectively and globally and that the solution would have to involve more than the introduction of technology. A comprehensive approach that involves the coordination of airline industry practices, air traffic control procedures, search and rescue capabilities and accident investigation processes would be required.”

Concerns about aircraft tracking were raised as a direct result of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 with 227 passengers aboard, which disappeared while flying from Kuala Lumpur with a destination of Beijing on March 8, 2014. The flight last made voice contact with air traffic control over the South China Sea less than an hour after takeoff and disappeared from air traffic control radar screens just a few minutes later.

Malaysian military radar tracked the plane as it flew off course but it eventually moved out of range. To this day no one knows what happened to the flight since it was not tracked from beginning to end.

Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), the panel’s ranking member who represents a district near Chicago O’Hare International Airport, said she found the incident “especially tragic and upsetting.”

“The disappearance of Flight MH 370 exposes preventable weaknesses in the international flight tracking systems,” Duckworth said. “As a pilot, frequent flyer and member of Congress who represents a district neighboring one the busiest airports in the nation, I find it unacceptable that in 2014 a plane can go completely missing for such an extended period of time without any answers or explanations.”

The issue is particularly stunning, she said. “With all of the technology available to us, with GPS and satellite phones, how could this disappearance have happened in 2014?”

One other big issue regards the recovery of cockpit voice and flight data recorders, often referred to as the black box. Lawson said one possible method to facilitate the recovery of post-accident data would be to mandate deployable flight recorders. But industry leaders and regulators urged the organization to draft standards that “would leave the door open to other emerging technologies such as streaming data, which may be easier and possibly quicker to implement.”

Standards for accident data recovery have been drafted and “will likely require changes or additions to aircraft equipment,” Lawson said. “And for this reason it may take several years to implement them.” Whatever changes are adopted by the ICAO probably won’t be phased in until the beginning of 2019 at the earliest.

But the airline industry is wary of implementing expensive, new tracking technologies that possibly could be replaced within a few years. Kevin L. Hiatt, senior vice president of Safety and Flight Operations at the International Air Transport Association, maintained that emerging technologies will create new capabilities in the global air navigation infrastructure, including an improved ability to track aircraft.

With that in mind, Hiatt told the subcommittee that the association “is concerned with suggestions that our industry should implement unnecessary solutions in the near term that will be more effectively addressed as more effective technology solutions are implemented over the next several years.”

As an example, Hiatt cited the suggested use of automatic, deployable flight recorders that would “be redundant for airlines that implement real time data streaming.”

“There are some who believe that new equipment is needed on board aircraft today to enhance aircraft tracking,” Hiatt said. “IATA believes that the immediate focus should remain on leveraging equipment already installed on aircraft. More importantly IATA believes that there is an urgent need to ensure adherence to the existing clearly defined roles and responsibilities of air navigation service providers and airlines.”

But Christopher Hart, acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, asserted “sophisticated aircraft accident investigation and analysis cannot be accomplished without recorded flight data.”

“In order for our important work to continue and make a difference in saving lives, we must ensure that the technologies are available to locate aircraft wreckage and recorders after an accident and that critical flight data can be recovered,” he said.