Act now on air traffic surveillance gaps

This first appeared as a Comment in the 1 April issue of Flight International.

The unexplained disappearance of a modern airliner is cause for deep reflection by the aviation industry.
Five years ago, Air France flight 447 disappeared relatively briefly into a known gap in air traffic surveillance over oceans. Malaysia Airlines flight 370 was over the South China Sea when it vanished almost without a trace on 8 March, but the Boeing 777-200ER was still within managed airspace.
Even so, MH370 fell into the second known gap of surveillance in the industry’s antiquated air traffic system – the handover from one national airspace system to another. In this case, the 777’s transponder went dark 3min after checking out of Malaysia’s coverage, and before checking into Vietnam’s.
There is no reason for either gap in the modern age. The aviation industry, lulled to sleep by an admirable safety record, has allowed its air traffic system to atrophy in an age of terrestrial navigation and tracking by satellite. The technology to provide for satellite tracking is being launched into space next year, although only a handful of air traffic systems have signed up to participate. Meanwhile, the US Federal Aviation Administration has been slow and sloppy in implementing the 10-year-old plan called NextGen.
Flight MH370 is a horrific human tragedy. It will be compounded if the opportunity to address gaps in the air traffic surveillance system remain unaddressed.

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