Amid a series of Asian aviation disasters that plagued the industry last year, Chinese authorities are moving quickly to ensure that domestically operated commercial aircraft are equipped with satellite communications that can keep pilots in touch with controllers and ground stations at all times. The hope is to avoid incidents like the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which vanished after departing from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on March 8, 2014, or prolonged searches for downed aircraft like AirAsia Flight 8501.
At the same time, U.S. regulators are also stepping up efforts to improve air-to-ground tracking and communications and will mandate that sophisticated new positioning systems be installed by 2020.
“Due to a lack of avionics equipage and ground infrastructure in China, voice communication capability is far behind the fast growth of China’s commercial aviation industry,” said the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), in a regulatory bulletin, a translated copy of which was obtained by International Business Times.
“By the end of 2015, implementation plan will be wrapped up. All the aircraft shall be finished or in the process of installation,” the bulletin said. The plan has been in the works for the past couple of years but gained urgency in the wake of the Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia disasters, according to industry sources. It will apply to range of Chinese carriers, including China Southern Airlines and China Eastern Airlines.
It notes that improved communications between ground crews and pilots will help ensure safety in the country’s aviation industry, which has seen explosive growth in the past decade. Known for its relatively unsafe skies after a series of crashes in the 1990s, China has made dramatic improvements in fleet and operational safety, in part by working more closely with Western experts from Boeing and other aircraft and avionics manufacturers. (The deadly crash in Taipei this week of an ATR 72 involved a plane operated by TransAsia Airways, which is based in Taiwan).
The country is now looking to further enhance safety by mandating improved communications systems. “All certified operators must prove to CAAC the ability to establish two-way communication on any point of the route,” the bulletin said. “Such communication shall be accessible by all aircraft. The time of establishing communication shall be less than four minutes.”
China’s mandate to install so-called satcom systems on all domestic airlines could be a boon for a number of Western suppliers. FLYHT Aerospace Solutions, of Calgary, Canada, is looking to gets its Afirs satellite communications and tracking system on China's list of approved technologies. "Afirs" is an acronym for automated flight information reporting system.
“They want the ability to just pick up the phone and talk to the aircraft, regardless of where it is,” FLYHT President Matt Bradley told IBTimes.
Other companies that could benefit include the U.K.’s Immarsat PLC and Iridium Communications, of McLean, Virginia. Both operate global satellite networks that could be used by Chinese airlines to comply with the new mandate.
Meanwhile, U.S. aviation authorities are pushing for new, onboard systems that could help investigators more quickly identify the location of a downed aircraft or offer assistance in the event of an emergency. The FAA plans to mandate that U.S. carriers equip their aircraft with a technology known as ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast), which sends out aircraft position location and other information at regular intervals.
Most commercial airliners in the U.S. use a mix of systems to comply with FAA operational requirements for communications. “What the FAA is saying is that it’s no longer going to be optional. It’s a great improvement,” said FLYHT’s Bradley. “If you find out an aircraft is not reporting, you have much more accurate position data.”
ADS-B could help controllers and ground crews keep tabs on aircraft after they enter zones not covered by conventional radar, such as over the ocean or the poles, Bradley said.