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Could Another Plane Disappear? How MH370 Could Change Flight Tracking

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cockpitThe disappearance of MH370 raised questions about flight tracking. In a time when nearly everything is recorded, tracked, or found via GPS, losing a plane seems impossible.

This Monday, International Air Transportation Association (IATA) CEO Tony Tyler addressed the Global Aerospace Summit in Abu Dhabi. He opened his speech with the following statement about flight tracking:

We must never let an aircraft go missing in this way again. And we are launching a task force that will, by the end of the year, establish an industry position on how to improve aircraft tracking, so that we know where to look for it should something unfortunate happen.

Let’s take a closer look at plane tracking: how it works, what can go wrong, and what is being done to improve it.

Primary and Secondary Radar 

Air traffic control relies on primary radar and secondary radar: primary radar is a regular system of radar towers on the ground; secondary radar refers to a plane’s transponder unit, which sends requested flight details to the ground towers.

These radar systems don’t work beyond roughly 150 miles of the towers. This is due to the physical difficulties of radar tracking in real time over far distances.

When an airplane is flying over the sea, it communicates via radar until it is too far away. After that, pilots will call air traffic control at designated times with either targeted high-frequency radio or a satellite phone (collectively called ACARS) to check in until they are within radar distance again.

Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast 

A new type of GPS developed for aviation called ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast) would broadcast the location and other details about a flight every second. This new flight-tracking technology has few barriers—other than cost—and is already being installed in some places.

ADS-B is used with special ground towers in Australia and Vietnam but, within the next six years, satellites will be launched so that flights can be tracked almost anywhere in the world. The U.S. ruled that all major aircraft must have ADS-B installed by 2020. Other countries made similar rulings with even earlier start dates.

Solutions for Airplane Tracking

The disappearance of MH370 has introduced discussions of changing airplane tracking. But for the time being, no changes will be made. Tony Tyler addressed this issue at the IATA OPS Conference in Kuala Lampur on April 1, 2014:

In a world where our every move seems to be tracked, there is disbelief both that an aircraft could simply disappear and that the “black box” is so difficult to recover. Air France 447 brought similar issues to light a few years ago and some progress was made. That must be accelerated. We cannot let another aircraft simply disappear.

Some are pushing for streaming a plane’s location in real time, linking to satellites, or installing expensive equipment. But most officials and organizations are waiting to see the results of the search for MH370. Once the cause of the accident is known, we may see some changes in how airplanes are tracked.

Want to know more about the disappearance of MH370? Click to read more:

By Cody Brooks for



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