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Airliner tracking efforts expected to reduce risks

Posted On: Oct. 11, 2015 12:00 AM CST

Requiring commercial aircraft to report their positions every 15 minutes to avoid a repeat of the massive area search over 16 months for a missing Malaysia Airlines flight should improve airlines' risk profile in the eyes of underwriters.

However, the new Global Aeronautical Distress and Safety System also could pose some risks that aren't necessarily insurable, experts say (see story, page 39).

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared in March 2014; two months later, the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization decided that improving global tracking should be a priority. That led to its decision to reduce the time commercial aircraft must report their position to 15 from 30 minutes with a November 2016 deadline for commercial airlines to comply with the requirement.

The goal of the global safety system, which is being built in phases, is to ensure that search and rescue, recovery and accident investigation teams get information faster when there's a incident.

While backers say new technology to support the more frequent communications and other aspects of the global safety system will add costs for commercial airlines, experts say the goal can be achieved now with existing technology.

Canberra, Australia-based air navigation service provider Airservices Australia and London-based satellite service provider Inmarsat P.L.C. in September said they had completed their evaluation, finding that technology in place on 90% of transoceanic aircraft could achieve the 15-minute reporting requirement via satellite.

“When the last reported position is fairly recent, it allows us to shrink down a nominal search area in the event that the aircraft can no longer communicate,” said Mary McMillan, Washington-based vice president of safety and operations at Inmarsat who also spent 25 years as a commercial pilot for United Airlines. “Air traffic control's first function is to keep aircraft separated, and (a commercial jet failing to report in) this is where ATC's second function would kick in and alert rescue coordination centers to instigate a search and rescue operation.”

“If tracking of aircraft becomes easier, it will have a lot of potentially positive aspects including safety, efficiency and environmental aspects,” Steven Schmidt, Munich-based senior aviation underwriter for Munich Reinsurance Co., said in an email. Still, “15 minutes can be a long period once you factor in the (cruising) speed of an airplane, i.e. distance and possibly the area, covered in that space of time.”

Aside from real-time reporting of their position, the new technology jumps on anomalies. “If the aircraft varies from its intended flight path, the system goes into emergency mode and starts broadcasting every 10 seconds to the airline's ground control and also provides feedback to the cockpit to allow the flight crew to signal that there is an issue,” said Chris Barth, a Chicago-based partner at Locke Lord L.L.P., who focuses on aviation and insurance law.

“The ICAO standard of 15 minutes is actually a long time when you look at the new technology that reports in updates via satellite uplink every 90 seconds,” he said.

Robert Hartwig, president of the New York-based Insurance Information Institute Inc., welcomes the change that could narrow a search area for aircraft, but doubted it would have much effect on underwriting because commercial jets rarely disappear over the ocean.

But saying in an email that Flight 370's reporting systems and transponder “were essentially deactivated by someone onboard,” Mr. Hartwig added that “increasing the frequency of reports may have some value as the plane may be declared missing sooner, but the lesson of MH370 is that there can still be enormous, hourslong recognition lags and confusion.”

“That's where these new systems are coming into place because of the recognition that it is a risk that someone could mask their intentions. These new systems can't be disabled in the cockpit and will address that concern,” Mr. Barth said.

“Ultimately, no system is foolproof; there's always some risk, but these new systems are definitely a step up from what's currently in wide use and will enhance airline safety,” he said. “Insurers are going to be in favor of anything that enhances safety, because that's going to reduce their losses.”