Aircraft tracking
Date issue released
Safety Issue Description

While there has been significant enhancements in the tracking of commercial aircraft in recent years there are some limitations to the improvements. The ICAO mandated 15-minute position tracking interval for existing aircraft may not reduce a potential search area enough to ensure that survivors and wreckage are located within a reasonable timeframe.

Issue number
AE-2014-054-SI-02
Issue Status
Closed – Partially addressed
Transport Function
Aviation: Air transport
Issue Owner
International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)
Mode of Transport
Aviation
Issue Status Justification

Although the safety action undertaken by ICAO to implement autonomous distress tracking (ADT) on newly-certified aircraft will have a significant long-term impact on global aircraft tracking, current transport aircraft will only be required to be tracked at 15-minute intervals which, as the ATSB noted, may not sufficiently reduce the potential search area for higher-speed, fixed wing transport aircraft.

The ATSB acknowledges the practical considerations in making ADT mandatory for existing aircraft but notes that the loss of MH370 prompted a global focus on aircraft tracking that resulted in many voluntary initiatives to provide improved aircraft position information, including:

  • some operators now track aircraft globally at intervals less than the 15 minutes required by Amendment 39 to Annex 6 and/or begun to implement ADT
  • aircraft and component manufacturers beginning to make ADT available as a retrofit to existing aircraft.

Accordingly, the ATSB continues to encourage regulators, manufacturers, and operators of aircraft that take oceanic or remote routes to consider the feasibility of having aircraft tracking at intervals of less than 15 minutes, and/or the use of ADT equipment on existing aircraft.

Issue finalisation date
Recommendation
Action number
AE-2014-054-SR-048
Organisation
State regulators
Action date
Action Status
Closed
Action description

The ATSB recommends that States ensure that sufficient mechanisms are in place to ensure a rapid detection of, and appropriate response to, the loss of aircraft position or contact throughout all areas of operation.

Organisation Response
Date Received
Organisation
State regulators
Response Text

The implementation of safety action associated with this recommendation is a matter for consideration by each respective State.

ATSB Response date
Recommendation
Action number
AE-2014-054-SR-049
Organisation
Aircraft operators, aircraft manufacturers, and aircraft equipment manufacturers
Action date
Action Status
Closed
Action description

The ATSB recommends that aircraft operators, aircraft manufacturers, and aircraft equipment manufacturers investigate ways to provide high-rate and/or automatically triggered global position tracking in existing and future fleets.

Organisation Response
Date Received
Organisation
Aircraft operators, aircraft manufacturers, and aircraft equipment manufacturers
Response Text

Some operators, including Malaysia Airlines, have implemented aircraft tracking solutions that are capable of almost real-time data to be monitored at ground stations. In addition, aircraft and equipment manufacturers have begun developing and implementing autonomous distress tracking (ADT) systems as a retrofit to existing aircraft in addition to installation in newly built aircraft.

The Boeing Company advised in 2024:

We continue to work under the oversight of global regulators on the requirement for a Global Aeronautical Distress and Safety System. We have developed a GADSS and performed flight and ground testing on our current airplane models. We are in the process of completing required engineering activities with the regulators to certify an in-line production and retrofit solution.
 

In addition, at least one other major manufacturer (Airbus) has made ADT available on various aircraft models since 2023 and is expanding its availability. Further, it has been reported that airlines, including some based in Australia, have started to implement ADT.

ATSB Response

The implementation of ADT is expected to be an effective way of locating an aircraft in distress quickly and accurately, and aircraft tracking at intervals of less than 15 minutes will provide a significant improvement over the ICAO standard.

ATSB Response date
Proactive action
Action number
AE-2014-054-PSA-202
Organisation
International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)
Action Status
Closed
Action description

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Amendment 39 to Annex 6 to the Convention on International Civil Aviation (Operation of Aircraft, Part I — International Commercial Air Transport — Aeroplanes) finalised the Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs) relating to aircraft tracking. About this amendment, which applied from 8 November 2018, ICAO stated:

The normal aircraft tracking SARPs establish the air operator’s responsibility to track its aircraft throughout its area of operations. It establishes an aircraft-tracking time interval of 15 minutes whenever air traffic services obtain an aircraft’s position information at greater than 15-minute intervals for aeroplanes with a seating capacity greater than nineteen. This aircrafttracking time interval further applies as a recommendation to all operations of aircraft with a take-off mass of 27 000 kg and as a requirement to all operations of aircraft with a take-off mass of 45 500 kg when flying over oceanic areas.

On 18 July 2022, ICAO adopted Amendment 48 to Annex 6 to the Convention on International Civil Aviation requiring the following:

As of 1 January 2025, all aeroplanes of a maximum certificated take-off mass of over 27 000 kg for which the individual certificate of airworthiness is first issued on or after 1 January 2024, shall autonomously transmit information from which a position can be determined by the operator at least once every minute, when in distress, in accordance with Appendix 9. A recommendation for aircraft over 5,700 kg to have a similar capability was also made. ICAO stated that although these SARPs apply only to newly manufactured aircraft, there is an incentive to retrofit aeroplanes with automonous distress tracking (ADT) systems since they can be used to replace one of two required emergency locator transmitters (ELT).

ICAO advised that there were two high-level functional objectives for a system meeting this requirement:

a) receive timely notice of an airplane in a distress condition to facilitate timely search and rescue operations, and
b) locate an accident site with high probability after a crash based on the last known position of the aircraft.
ATSB Response

The capability of an aircraft in distress to transmit position information at least once every minute should significantly reduce the emergency response time and potential search area compared with aircraft tracked at 15-minute intervals, particularly in fixed-wing aircraft with high cruise speeds. However, this requirement is likely to have limited application in the coming decades as current aircraft (for which autonomous distress tracking, or ADT, is not mandatory) continue to operate.