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Monday, May 12, 2014

After the Loss of Flight MH370 - Airlines to be Given Access to Inmarsat Near-Real-Time Aircraft Tracking Service

As reported by the Seattle Times: Inmarsat Plc, a provider of global mobile satellite communications services, said it will offer free basic tracking services for planes flying over oceans in the hope of preventing another incident such as the loss of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

The British company said Monday that the service is being offered to all 11,000 commercial passenger aircraft already equipped with an Inmarsat satellite connection -- most of the world's long-haul commercial fleet.

"This offer responsibly, quickly and at little or no cost to the industry, addresses in part the problem brought to light by the recent tragic events around MH370," said Inmarsat CEO Rupert Pearce.

The Boeing 777 with 239 people on board was en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur on March 8 when it disappeared. The plane automatically sent signals to a satellite belonging to Inmarsat after the plane's transponder and its communication systems had shut down -- but researchers were unable to find the plane before the batteries in the black box flight recorder shut down.

Malaysia's government said the plane's last position was in the middle of the Indian Ocean, west of Perth, and that the flight ended there. It has not been found.

Inmarsat, which made its offer ahead of a conference in Canada on aircraft tracking, said it anticipated the adoption of further safety measures following the loss of MH370.

The company said it would also offer both an enhanced position reporting facility and a 'black box in the cloud' service that would stream historic and real-time flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder information when a plane deviates from its course. These would not be free.

Inmarsat PLC started out in 1979 as an intergovernmental organization that helped track ships at sea, but became a private company in 1999.

Its customers now include airlines, broadcast media, oil and gas companies and aid agencies who use hand-held satellite phones, laptop size Internet devices and antennas linked to the company's 10 satellites to communicate.



Chris McLaughlin, a senior Inmarsat executive, said the uptake of the service could be almost immediate on 90 per cent of the global fleet of widebody aircraft as they have the necessary equipment already installed. He said a simple software upgrade would extend that to “virtually 100 per cent” of long-haul aircraft flying today.

The service would enable the aircraft to transmit data about its speed, height and direction over the Inmarsat network every 15 minutes.

Long-haul aircraft flying over the world’s oceans are out of radar contact for prolonged periods and normally use a combination of radio communications or transmissions via satellite to report their positions. The latter has been a voluntary premium service until now.

The offer by Inmarsat comes ahead of a meeting of the International Civil Aviation Organisation, the UN agency that sets global aviation standards, in Montreal on Monday to discuss real-time tracking of aircraft in the wake of the disappearance of MH370.

An interim report into the disappearance of the Malaysian airliner, which has still not been found despite the biggest international search in history, recommended that aircraft should be tracked in real-time.

This is a repeat of the recommendation made by French air accident investigators following the crash of an Air France aircraft in the South Atlantic in 2009. It was revealed in late March that ICAO had ignored their proposal to introduce a mandatory requirement for all commercial airliners to regularly “transmit basic flight parameters” such as position, altitude, speed and heading.

“By doing this at no cost we are looking to take the immediate stress out of the system as no doubt ICAO will be discussing what to do for the rest of the year,” Mr McLaughlin said.

He added that providing the basic service for free would cost Inmarsat about $3m a year. “It is a marginal cost to us but we think it is worth it.” He said the company hoped to recoup those losses by convincing more airlines to sign up for its premium services which allow the aircraft to transmit information back to the maintenance base about the performance of its systems, such as its engines and fuel consumption.

The take-up of satellite-based communications services by airlines has been slow because of the cost. Inmarsat was originally set up by the UN’s International Maritime Organisation 34 years ago to offer tracking and communications services to the shipping industry. It was privatised in 1999 but has continued to offer a free global maritime distress service.


The search for MH370 has been scaled back in recent weeks after the authorities failed to locate any wreckage in the southern Indian Ocean off the Australian coast. Investigators have focused on this area as the only clue to the whereabouts of the aircraft came from brief “electronic handshakes” that an Inmarsat system on the Malaysian jet had made with one of the company’s satellites.


The Inmarsat system on MH370 was not active because Malaysian Airlines was one of the many airlines around the world that had not signed up for the satellite services.