What if we could track all the planes in the sky for free??

Back when MH370 went missing I shared my (somewhat unpopular) view that tracking all planes all the time was probably not worth the cost, certainly not for full “black box” dumps. I do understand that the cost for very simple position/speed data would be much less expensive to transmit and process, but there’s still a decent amount of money which would be spent on the effort. Global communications carrier Inmarsat seems keen to help with that aspect of the situation.

The company has offered up its constellation of communications satellites as the data link for such a tracking service, and they’ll do it for free. The move would see Inmarsat forego $10-15mm in annual revenue to provide the necessary bandwidth and coverage for such a service if the international community agrees to use the Inmarsat systems as their backbone. But, of course, it is more complicated than that.


The airlines would still have to buy, install and maintain the hardware which sits on the planes and relays the data to the satellites. That’s not cheap and Inmarsat doesn’t sell it so it isn’t even something they could give away if they wanted to. Also, there’s no agreement yet amongst the airlines about what should be tracked when or where. An IATA working group has convened and they might come to some agreement by the end of the year but they also might not. It is a committee, after all.

And they’d still need buy-in from the airlines. Some already have tracking of their fleet and they’d have to decide whether to alter their systems or perhaps those would be included in the agreement made by the IATA group. But it will take time and money, even assuming everyone agrees, to fit planes and get them all talking via satellites. Then again, Inmarsat is already tracking tens of thousands of ocean-going ships via their Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) so they know a little something about monitoring lots of moving vessels.

Part of me sees this as a bit of a publicity stunt. Inmarset gets some good press and they aren’t really committed to doing anything yet. And even if they do have to offer the bandwidth for free it is not a ton of revenue they’re giving up relative to their annual numbers and it is always possible that once the hardware is on the planes the airlines will use it for other, optional services which means other revenue for Inmarsat anyways. But if it means the airlines end up doing something a bit better for their fleet and they save money doing it I suppose there’s nothing all that wrong with the move. Plus Inmarsat can do something reasonably useful with their older, low-bandwidth satellites which aren’t really useful for the rapidly growing bandwidth needs of in-flight connectivity.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


    1. According to the linked story Lufthansa and Air France both have their engine monitoring systems include location in the regular reports. That’s part of how they found AF447 so quickly after its demise.

  1. On a related matter, it looks as if the old 30-day beeper-battery-life standard needs revision. I think that a third “black box” with a 2-year beeper would be appropriate.

    And rather than using a standard li-on rechargeable battery, the long-life beeper might use a permanent sealed battery which is activated by seawater.

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