Considering air traffic control after MH370

21:49, May 18 2014

How do you lose an airplane?

The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has been so baffling, so complete, it's frightening. The not knowing gnaws at us all.

But the search for the plane and the 239 people aboard did illuminate one area of air travel that most of us never think about: air traffic control.

And, as often happens when something goes terribly wrong, we realise what really goes on behind the scenes isn't quite what we expected. Knowledge is power, sure, but it can also make you a little queasy next time you get on an airplane.

Most of us were wondering how you lose a plane when GPS technology lets you track anything or anyone anywhere these days.

These days?


I remember 10 years ago, taking a car service to the airport and the driver telling me his company could know where he and everyone else was at any time, thanks to GPS technology. No going home for lunch anymore, he lamented.

Today, the GPS on my smartphone is so precise it even knows which way my car is facing when it gives me directions.

Yelp and YP will tell me what Mexican restaurants are within walking/ biking/ driving distance - after Google asks permission to "share my location."

Yet an airplane disappears, and nobody, not air-traffic control, not even Google can find it?

I think most of us who put our trust in the "system" were surprised to hear that the air-traffic control system in the 21st century is not GPS-equipped.

In fact, I figured that where air traffic and thousands of planes carrying millions of passengers are concerned, they used something even better than GPS.

Instead, air-traffic control keeps track of planes via radar, which was, granted, cutting edge when it was introduced in the World War II era.

But radar has a lot of gaps in its coverage. Like over an ocean, where you and your pilot may be on your own, since receivers for radar are on land only and extend only so far. After that, radio communication, visuals and preapproved flight plans come into play.

The Federal Aviation Administration is on the case, however. Has been for eight years now, working on what it calls NextGen, the next generation international air-space control system. At its core is something called Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) - aviation-ese for GPS guidance. ADS-B will use satellite tracking, which can cover pretty much anywhere, and certainly more than radar.

On April 14, the FAA announced that it had finished setting up the land component for the system. It also said that all aircraft operating in controlled airspace in the United States must be equipped with ADS-B by 2020.

When NextGen is ready, it sounds like it will be the Second Coming of aviation, as the FAA explains it. But right now, this utopia isn't helping my confidence in the current situation, especially when I think about what we don't have until NextGen becomes operational:

• With NextGen, both pilots and air-traffic control - for the first time - will have real-time displays of air traffic. (No, that little animation on your seatback showing where you are is a collection of data reported over time).

• When 2020 comes around, pilots will have - again for the first time - digital communications with air-traffic control.

• That new system will, finally, replace nearly 20 separate voice systems used across the United States.

• For the first time, there will be a single national reporting system for the whereabouts of all airplanes.

That's in 2020. Until then?

If 2020 seems very far away, remember that you're measuring in human-years, not bureaucrat-years, a time measurement falling somewhere between dog years and tectonic-movement years.

Keep in mind that the FAA began this project eight years ago, and while it went over budget in record time, it also fell behind schedule with commensurate alacrity.

A February 2012 investigation by the Government Accounting Office found that NextGen at that point was going to cost at least US$4.2 (NZ$4.86 billion) billion more than originally expected, and some programs could be delayed more than 14 years.

By which time, of course, the whole NextGen will be outdated.