The British satellite communications company that pointed the search for Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 to the Indian Ocean is offering a free and basic tracking service to its customers, which include most of the world's airlines.
Inmarsat said the service would be offered to all 11,000 commercial passenger aircraft that are already equipped with Inmarsat satellite connections, comprising virtually 100 per cent of the world's long-haul commercial fleet.
"This offer responsibly, quickly and at little or no cost to the industry, addresses in part the problem brought to light by the recent tragic events around MH370," Inmarsat CEO Rupert Pearce told the Associated Press.
The company made the announcement before United Nations aviation officials gathered in Montreal on Monday to discuss better tracking of aircraft in the highest-level response yet to safety concerns raised by the disappearance of Flight MH370.
The Boeing 777 with 239 people on board was en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur on March 8 when it disappeared. The plane automatically sent signals to a satellite belonging to Inmarsat after the plane's transponder and its communication systems had shut down — but researchers were unable to find the plane before the batteries in the black box flight recorder shut down.
Inmarsat said it anticipated the adoption of further safety measures following the loss of MH370.
Black box streaming service
The company said it would also offer both an enhanced position reporting facility and a 'black box in the cloud' service that would stream historic and real-time flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder information when a plane deviates from its course. These would not be free.
The United Nations' International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is hosting this week's talks in Montreal to discuss what can be done with current technology and what standards need to be set for new technology as globalization brings a steady increase in intercontinental air traffic.
The May 12-13 meeting at ICAO headquarters brings together 40 nations and representatives of aviation regulators, airports, airlines, air traffic controllers, pilots and radio experts.
"For the general public it has become unthinkable that a flight can simply disappear," the European Union said in a paper presented in advance of the two-day talks.
"An aircraft should be permanently tracked, even beyond radar coverage, and in case of an accident it should be immediately located," the paper said.
The EU paper also warned that some existing satellite-based cockpit systems could also be vulnerable to cyberattacks.
The International Air Transport Association, which represents nearly all long-haul airlines, said in April that it would set up a special task force on the issue of tracking.
Officials say that jets can be tracked with hardware available for less than $100,000 and updates can be transmitted using existing technology, though the cost depends on the frequency of updates.
Other more simple options include embedding GPS tracking devices in aircraft, but these could require safety certification and there are no common safety standards.
Plane-tracking discussed since 2010
Regulators have been discussing since 2010 how to improve communications with passenger jets over oceans and remote areas after an Air France plane crashed into the Atlantic a year earlier, but they have so far failed to agree on a co-ordinated international approach to the problem.
However, worldwide alarm at the failure to find MH370 in more than two months since it vanished en route to Beijing has pushed the issue to the top of the aviation agenda.
Regular flight-tracking was one of the key recommendations of French investigators after the loss of Air France 447.
Aviation experts say previous attempts to reach agreement on tracking and other reforms in the aftermath of Air France 447 have been delayed by uncertainties over the cost and control of infrastructure and reluctance to rely on "monopoly" providers.
Recent EU decision-making has also had to overcome wrangling among manufacturers, regulators and pilots.
But officials are now more optimistic that the aviation industry will take the lead with the help of a common strategy between regulators.