Global airlines are studying how to prevent a repeat of last month’s disappearance of a Malaysia Airlines plane, one of more than 80 aircraft to vanish in flight since the mid-20th century.
The International Air Transport Association, which represents 240 airlines, said last week it is creating a panel to examine how to improve real-time aircraft tracking. The association plans to make recommendations by the end of this year.
In an interview, Washington-based association spokesman Perry Flint said the trade group is consulting experts from airlines, aircraft manufacturers and systems makers, search and rescue organizations, and the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization.
“This sort of task force may be unique,” Flint said. “But, the air transport industry also has organized international meetings in the past to address specific challenges.”
Flint said the new panel will focus on real-time tracking of aircraft, rather than streaming of flight performance data for aircraft systems. He said any proposed improvements would not be likely to involve installing entirely new systems on planes.
Flint also said there is no guarantee about what will happen to the association’s recommendations. As an industry group, it can appeal for action but cannot mandate any steps by national or international authorities.
“Our main goal is to never be in a situation where we don’t know where an airplane is,” Flint said. “There are about 100,000 flights a day, and almost every day, every one of them ends on a runway somewhere. In situations where a flight does not end on a runway, we want to know where it is.”
Such situations have arisen before.
A Netherlands-based aviation accident database has recorded 88 cases of missing planes since World War II.
The Aviation Safety Network said 62 of them involve aircraft vanishing over water, as happened to Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 on March 8.
Lead database manager Hare Ranter said most disappearances at sea appear to have involved aircraft running out of fuel or suffering engine problems.
He said most of the other planes went missing over mountainous terrain, leading authorities to assume they were flying too low or caught in poor weather.
Ranter, who also serves as an adviser to the Dutch government, said the disappearance of MH370 stands out from the other cases in several ways.
He said first and foremost, the case involves the highest number of people ever to be lost on a missing aircraft. The Malaysia Airlines plane was carrying 239 passengers and crew on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
The previous record for people lost on a missing plane was set on March 16, 1962, when a U.S. military charter flight carrying 107 people, mostly soldiers, vanished over the Pacific Ocean on a flight from Guam to the Philippines.
Ranter also said most of the 88 missing plane cases happened in the 1960s and 1970s.
“In those days, navigation equipment and satellite coverage were nonexistent or not as advanced as they are today,” he said. “The Boeing 777 involved in MH370 had a very high safety standard, was considered very reliable, and was operated by an airline also considered very safe and reliable.”
Ranter said almost all of the disappearances in more recent decades involve cargo aircraft and relatively small private planes, rather than commercial passenger flights.