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If I call 911 I expect my cell phone to be able to tell law enforcement where I am. It is now possible, and inexpensive, to put tracking systems in a car, pet, or child. All this has been made possible by a system known as the Global Positioning System, or GPS. It uses a system of medium earth orbit satellites which communicate with receivers on the ground. These receivers can then determine the user’s location, generally to within ten meters.

GPS was originally developed by the United States military, but has been available to the civilian public world-wide since the early 1990s. As the system has gained popularity the receivers have become quite affordable, with some priced under $80. So why have I written an advertisement for the wonders of GPS on a blog devoted to airline safety issues? Because, while we expect our phones to know where we are, or if lost on a twisty mountain road, for our cars to know where we are, many airlines don’t know where their planes are.

Several disturbing facts have been exposed in the wake of the Air France Flight 447 disaster. One of them is that no one had any real idea where the craft was at the time of the incident. Current commercial aviation tracking uses a system of radar networks. These networks communicate with components known as transponders aboard the aircraft. This system, essentially unchanged since the 1950s, works fairly well on domestic flights, but is useless when a craft is more than 200 miles from land. When craft are outside the area of radar coverage, air traffic controllers are reducing to estimating the plane’s location based on flight plans and air speeds.

So why then does the airline industry continue to use a sixty year old system when a better option is available? Most times a question begins with the thought, “why don’t they,” the answer is the same. Money. Industry estimates suggest that a complete changeover to a GPS system would cost roughly $35 billion. Though, since Southwest airlines is already making the changeover in an effort to save money, industry attempts at poor-mouthing seem less convincing than they otherwise might.

When Columbus sailed the Atlantic in the late 15th century, he determined his position each day using dead reckoning. He guessed, in other words, based on estimates of wind speed, currents, and weather. That was the state of the art technique in 1492. The disturbing thing is that it appears to be the same technique used by airlines to keep track of their international flights today. As common carriers, airlines owe their passengers the highest duty of care. Refusing to install a device I could purchase at Walmart for $79.98 does not come close to fulfilling that duty.


  1. Gravatar for Mike Bryant

    Very interesting and overall helpful idea. You don't ever want to use it, but the reality is that it makes sense to add the technology we have already.

  2. Gravatar for Bob

    I'm always amazed at how much people expect from airlines and aircraft manufacturers. Airlines and air travel have become the MOST regulated means of transportation in the world all because people demand 100% perfection from airplanes yet these very same folks jump in their SUV and crank up the music on their MP3 players so that they cannot even hear emergency vehicles approaching, grab the cell phone and jabber aimlessly while driving in 75-80 mph traffic down the freeway where, by the way, more than 45000 people are killed each year, yet when an airplane crashes they all scream for more protection........anyone see a dilemma here? It's the same as people wanting more from government yet complain that their taxes are going up......DUH!

  3. Gravatar for Jet Pilot

    Wow. The levels of ignorance displayed here are stunning. There is a VAST difference between using GPS to determine a position, which requires a receiver only, and using a satellite communication network to TRANSMIT that position to others. Jets that cross the ocean have redundant GPS receivers, as well as redundant Inertial Naviagation Systems, and they know where they are with great accuracy and precision. That they do not TRANSMIT that position continuously is a separate issue entirely, and the fact that ATC doesn't require that sort of automated position reporting for use in controlling air traffic is another issue as well.

    The Air France jet knew its position just fine right up until the end. Why nobody outside the jet had that knowledge is an interesting, and HIGHLY technical, question, but it is unrelated to GPS technology or your $89 receiver.

    All of which appears to be beyond the original contributor's awareness.

  4. Gravatar for Bob

    I agree with Jet Pilot....this article is consistent with the type of "journalism" rampant today.......all hype and no substance. It certainly seems as this is nothing more than the author's personal opinion rather than in-depth research into a technical subject, but then again all one has to do nowadays is tune in the evening noise and listen to all the "reporters?" scream at you. Edward R. Murrow must be doing somersaults in his grave.

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