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.