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Two and a half years before MH370 went missing, a small Canadian airline already had started installing flight-tracking system of the future.
First Air, a regional carrier which serves routes from Ottawa, Canada to the Arctic, had plenty of motivation to consider systems other larger carriers have lagged behind in adopting. Their decision to activate the FLYHT‘s FLYHTStream system was only recently announced, making this Canadian regional carrier an industry first.
While many airlines today, even after the disappearance of MH370, debate the need for Automated Flight Information Reporting System (AFIRS) or alternative forms of advanced flight tracking and “black box” data transmission, claiming that Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) already provide some of the functionality, First Air couldn’t rely on ACARS to govern their flights.
As Victor Charlebois, Vice President of Flight Operations at First Air explains, that’s because ACARS are one-way communications systems and rely on radar connections or spotty satellite pings.
First Air doesn’t have radar available along on its routes in remote locations north all the way to the arctic circle. The airline serves only two airports with paved runways and often confronts harsh weather conditions which take down the necessary radio and telephone communications for the automatic departure and arrival messages protocols, which they previously relied on to determine the status of their flights.
“We now have multiple methods to communicate,” Charlebois tells us.
With AFIRS onboard their aircraft, and FLYHTStream activated, First Air can now obtain live information on their flights, monitoring them on television screens along their flight path, as well as helpful aircraft health alerts which notify them of any components which might require maintenance on landing.
Additionally, the FLYHTStream system allows pilots to trigger a notification to the ground that the flight is in trouble, simply by pushing a button, and the system immediately begins to transmit all the necessary data back to the home base so the airline understands what is wrong on the flight and what next-steps are necessary.
Even if the pilot does not push the button, the operations center for the airline can trigger a request for information on their end, and the aircraft will immediately begin transmitting live data which can help the airline determine what is amiss.
“AFIRS have also made it possible for us to communicate with the crew directly,” Charlebois says, because the system has voice transmission capabilities.
AFIRS and the FLYHTStream system have given this regional carrier a level of confidence on the status of their flights they could not previously have expected, as well as control over their operations.
“AFIRS knows where the aircraft should fly so if it veers more than about 20 miles from its path..everyone is alerted,” Charlebois says.
The FLYHTStream data streaming service can also be triggered automatically by a critical system failure, such as an engine down or a fire on board. Under those circumstances, the aircraft begins streaming immediately, with no intervention from the pilot or from the ground.
“We’ve been working with FLYHT so that by the middle or end of May, we’ll have the full data streaming capabilities implemented.”
Deciding to go with FLYHT’s AFIRS Iridium Global Communications System was relatively easy for First Air. They had plenty of motivation to do so as the system not only provided them functionality they could not get elsewhere, but also was lighter weight and less expensive than the more limited ACARS systems other airlines use.
“We’ve equipped twenty-two of the aircraft in our fleet over two years,” Charlebois tells us. The timeline was driven by the airline’s choice to fit the equipment onto their aircraft during standard maintenance intervals. The installations themselves took only five days.
Why Is First Air Alone?
To understand why airlines wouldn’t just flock to systems which give this level of enhanced functionality at a reduced weight and reduced price, it’s important to understand that FLYHT’s systems are up against some great misconceptions, even within the industry. Some perceive ACARS as already covering the needs of the industry well, and point out that additional data is only necessary in rare cases because flying is inherently a safe mode of transport. But Charlebois believes the benefits to AFIRS go far beyond preparing for the worst, and are ideal for getting the best services in the most difficult conditions.
Matt Bradley, President of FLYHT, points out some limitations of ACARS, which better illustrate why an airline with no room for error, like First Air, would feel secure using their AFIRS systems:
“There are many implementations of ACARS, but most “fire and forget” when they send a message, meaning that the system (and thereby the crew) has no means of knowing if the message was received, and there are no “re-tries” initiated by the ACARS system. By contrast, the AFIRS system sends not only a message describing the event but also a corresponding block of data that can be used by subject matter experts on the ground to understand the context of the event message. AFIRS retains the message and data until it receives confirmation from the ground receiver that the message and event data have been received.”
The investment required isn’t large. The cost of buying and installing an AFIRS box and antenna can cost up to $100,000 per aircraft, but that should be put in context of a $80M-$400M aircraft, or even still the context that $100,000 is about the price of a single simple business class seat on an airplane.
The FLYHT system also does not require any new infrastructure. It does not have to wait until NextGen flight control systems are finalized sometime around the year 2020. It works on the existing GNSS global and GPS navigation satellite network, the Iridium satellite constellation, ground stations and the internet. All of which are already in place.
As Bradley cautions, because we simply don’t the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of MH370, any statements about a particular system as a solution must be balanced against the possibility that something which would have completely destroyed the aircraft, like an explosion, might have occurred. If so, then no communications system could have done any good.
However, indications from Inmarsat and from others involved in the search would indicate that the aircraft flew for a considerable amount of time after all communications were lost. In those circumstances, had the aircraft been outfitted with an AFIRS system, even if there was a general power failure, he explains:
“With triggered data transmission, we would know where the aircraft was when AFIRS last had electrical power and we would know the behavior of the aircraft at all times leading up to the point at which aircraft sensors or data buses lost power, including altitude, attitude, airspeed, direction/heading, engine state, doors open/closed, and many other parameters.”
As we mentioned when we began, First Air had selected the AFIRS system long before the disappearance of MH370 and they recently announced that they will be the first airline to turn on the FLYHTStreaming service this May.
This Canadian regional carrier made a point of working proactively to improve their systems, rather than reacting to a tragedy.
First Air remains the first and the only airline to take this step.
Bradley points out that Fred Smith of FedEx, the Air Line Pilots Association and the Flight Safety Foundation have asked IATA and ICAO to require implementation of improved flight tracking, and IATA’s CEO Tony Tyler, speaking at the OPS conference in Kuala Lumpur this April, indicated that the industry should focus on establishing partnerships to address this issue. But while working groups to discuss the matter are being formed, the time frame from meetings to action is yet to be determined.
Inmarsat has also indicated that they would be willing to offer airlines flight tracking via their connectivity services. However, the Inmarsat solution would not provide a parallel service to that of FLYHT’s AFIRS and FLYHTStream service.
When Air France 447 disappeared over the Atlantic in 2009, there was some data retrieved from the ACARS which helped guide the search and ultimately led to recovery of its flight data recorder in 2011. However, the delay in finding that data recorder, further aggravated by the delay in retrieving the data from the box, prompted a call to action from the industry at the time too.
While the FLYHT AFIRS was already available in 2009, that general call to action fell on deaf ears, except for FLYHT. It inspired them to move forward and enhance their product by developing the FLYHTStream service. A service, which, until First Air took the first leap forward, no one else took the initiative to get off the ground.
FLYHT continues committed to ensuring that aircraft can’t just go missing. Bradley tells us they are in discussion with other airlines about the FLYHTStream service on their AFIRS system.
When we asked why Airbus or Boeing had not already approved this equipment as a standard option for their new aircraft, Bradley explained that “gaps in the industry have to be wide enough for everyone to agree that something must be done.”
Unfortunately, in the case of MH370, the gap in the industry was large enough to lose a plane through.
First Air has no doubt that they made the right choice for themselves and for their customers by adopting this equipment. They’re used to going it alone. They’re at ease flying in unfamiliar territory, even under hostile conditions, and they value the safety and security benefits they get from being well equipped.
Marisa Garcia has worked in aviation since 1994, spending 16 years on the design and manufacturing of cabin interiors and cabin safety equipment. She shares insights gained from this experience on Flight Chic and Tweets as @designerjet.