What Is Real-Time Tracking — and Why Don't Airplanes Use It?

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In an era when the location of every cell phone can be accurately tracked moment by moment, a new report from Malaysia's Air Accident Investigation Bureau is raising questions about why the airline industry still relies on older technologies, including radar and “black box” recorders, rather than “real-time tracking.”

Here, with help from aviation safety consultant Steve Cowell, are some of the issues involved (answers have been edited for length and clarity):

Q: What is real-time tracking and how is it different than systems currently being used?

A: A traditional flight-data recorder is like an old-fashioned tape recorder; you record something, then play it back later and decide what’s valuable and what isn’t. Real-time data tracking means you’re getting continuous data streaming from thousands of data points from an aircraft’s computers.

Q: Why isn’t the technology currently being used to track airplanes?

A: It is being used, but for maintenance information, which is streamed to aircraft manufacturers and not analyzed in real time. They look at it as part of a health summary during routine maintenance.

Q: But if they are getting that info already, can’t they also look at in real time?

A: We don’t have that capability right now. If you have thousands of aircraft streaming data, you’d need the ability to analyze millions of points of data at any given time. You’d need thousands of people sitting at desks to analyze those streams of data in real time.

The cost could be enormous and could raise ticket prices.

Q: What role does cost play?

A: It currently costs around $75,000 to install a [maintenance-tracking] system per aircraft. The cost to stream that data is about $3 per minute. If you’re dealing with a 4-hour flight, you’ve got 240 minutes times $3 times the total number of planes in the sky. The cost could be enormous and could raise ticket prices.

Q: Malaysia’ Ministry of Transport is now recommending that international aviation authorities “examine the safety benefits of introducing a standard for real-time tracking of commercial air transport aircraft.” Do you see that happening?

A: At this point, it’s not up to authorities. It’s up to each individual carrier signing on to the program — ordering planes equipped with the devices and being willing to pay for the streaming. And until we have the technology to analyze that data, we’re just not there yet.