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ICAO moves to improve global flight tracking

MONTREAL - The International Civil Aviation Organization continues to maintain that air travel remains safe as the UN agency undertakes efforts to improve the global tracking of airline flights.

ICAO officials say they expect to have a series of recommendations in place as early as September.

Their response came after a special two-day meeting at its Montreal headquarters looked at airline flight tracking in light of the crash of a Malaysian airliner in March.

The international body that governs civil aviation has described the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH 370 in March as an anomaly.

Nancy Graham, the director of ICAO's air navigation bureau, said different technologies to improve the tracking of aircraft are currently available.

"By September, we'll have recommendations of a few (technologies) that are suitable for global tracking," she said in an interview Tuesday. "And those will be put in place beginning probably later this year."

The next step is to develop a standard that will be used everywhere in the world — a scenario Graham said could take a few years to materialize.

She said many aircraft have the equipment and the capability to provide the tracking, but some changes are required.

"It's probably a little bit of hardware, software and procedures, but not a lot," she said. "It's not terribly expensive — and it's not terribly difficult."

One equipment vendor has already indicated it would cost $100,000 to make any improvements, but Graham insisted it could be done for less.

The costs would probably be passed along to air travellers and would translate into an increase of "only a dime or two" on an airline ticket, she added.

A 20-member task force has already started work and includes representatives from ICAO, the International Air Transport Association, the airline industry and pilots.

Kevin Hiatt, IATA's senior vice-president for safety and flight operations, said the group will look at all solutions being provided by vendors and other sources.

"The task force will identify solutions that will enhance the ability to verify the current position of an aircraft," he told a news conference.

IATA represents more than 240 airlines in 115-plus countries. They carry about 85 per cent of the world's air traffic.

Figures released by IATA indicate there were 210 fatalities from commercial aviation accidents in 2013, down from 414 the previous year.

ICAO council president Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu pointed out that in 2013, the global air transport network managed 32 million airline flights with some three billion passengers.

"In the course of these operations, there were fewer fatalities than were experienced in the single tragedy which has been Malaysia Airlines Flight MH 370," he said.

The ICAO official quickly added that those results are of little comfort to the families of the passengers and crew of the doomed flight.

There were 239 people aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which is believed to be at the bottom of the Indian Ocean.

IATA estimates that about 165 airlines — close to 70 per cent of its member airlines — fly across oceans on part of their flights.

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