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High Skies, Low Tech: Why We Still Can't Track a Plane

Denny Kelly, Kelly James and Associates, cites vast distances as one issue contributing to the tracking of airplanes. CNBC's Phil LeBeau provides perspective.
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The second disappearance of an airplane this year has spurred concerns over why the aviation industry remains unable to track aircraft even as easily available consumer devices come equipped with navigation technology.

"There isn't a worldwide tracking system and the industry hasn't responded to put one in place, which is unfortunate," Jim Hall, managing director of Hall & Associates and former chairman of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, told CNBC. He noted that the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is evaluating tracking systems, but he expects progress to be slow.

While modern airlines do have satellite communications and satellite coordinates for tracking capabilities, air traffic control cannot pinpoint a plane to an exact location. Tracking is still dependent on dual-system radar technology, which many experts say is outdated.

"The technology is not up to date on these airplanes, where they can be tracked within a quarter of a mile. That may happen sometime in the future," said Denny Kelly, principal of aviation investigative services firm Kelly James and Associates. "Some of these airplanes have satellite capabilities, but you have such vast distances that sometimes the information they get is inaccurate and sometimes they don't get any information at all."

"The technology is not up to date on these airplanes, where they can be tracked within a quarter of a mile. That may happen sometime in the future."

The twin airplane disappearances this year of Malaysia Airlines MH370 this year and AirAsia flight QZ8501, as well as Air France flight 447 in 2009, have focused attention on why airplanes aren't transmitting around-the-clock information about their whereabouts and status.

To be sure, airlines do have efficient communication systems in place, noted Greg Waldron, Asia managing editor of FlightGlobal.

"Airplanes are always transmitting their locations via their transponders and communicating through radio. The case of MH370 was exceptional since the transponder was turned off. Suggestions for the transponder to be left on 24/7 are typically disliked by pilots since they want to be able to isolate it if the situation calls for it," Waldron said.

AirAsia flight QZ8501 was communicating with air traffic controllers up until a few minutes before disappearing from radar. The final communication between the flight and Indonesian navigation operator AirNav was a request by lead pilot Captain Iriyanto to ascend to an altitude of 38,000 feet at 6:12am local time Sunday.

Although the request was initially denied as six other planes were already flying at a similar height, minutes later, AirNav approved a revised height of 34,000 feet, but received no response from Iriyanto. By 6.17am, all contact with air traffic control was lost.There's another reason airlines aren't rushing to equip planes with technology to constantly update their status: the sheer size of data being collected and the costs of uploading that information to air traffic control, Waldron noted.

While some airlines constantly upload information about their planes via satellite to air traffic control, as was the case in the 2009 Air France crash, the costs of these services are high; ARINC is one such service, owned by American avionics firm Rockwell Collins.

"Uploading every aircraft parameter, every aspect of the airplane like fuel and hydraulic levels, engine controls, 99.9 percent of that time, you don't need that data," Waldron added. "It's a good idea in principle, but really, given the number of flights that take place daily and the minor eventuality of an accident happening, it's just not a practical investment for airlines."

Alternative solutions

Hall, the former NTSB chairman, recommends that all commercial airlines be equipped with deployable recorders, a combination of a flight-data recorder, a cockpit voice recorder and an emergency locator transmitter, that can be ejected from aircraft before or after a crash. These devices can float, so in a crash, it can provide both the accident's location and data on what occurred, he explained.

No commercial airline currently uses this technology although it's been around for decades as a key staple in military equipment, such as Australia's P-3 Orion aircraft, Hall said.

Two months ago, reports surfaced that Airbus had plans to include these recorders in its A-350 and A-380 planes. Rival Boeing, however, told the NTSB that these recorders were a safety risk since they are prone to ejecting accidentally, the Associated Press reported in October.

Show me the money

Another big hurdle to creating a global airline tracking system is the cost, with both governments and the global airline industry expected to financially support the development of next generation airplane communication.

Global airlines received an early Christmas gift this year in the form of cheap oil, likely pushing their collective net profit to $25 billion next year, up from $19.9 billion in 2014, according to a report from The International Air Transport Association (IATA) earlier this month.

But even with industry outlook improving, airlines aren't likely to use much of the extra cash to fund technological improvements since their priorities lie with reducing expenses, Denny Kelly of Kelly James and Associates said.

He advocates an alternative funding solution instead: Slapping an additional tax on passenger tickets, around $20 per return ticket, in an effort to source funds.