Newspaper article International New York Times

Plan to Track Flights Gains Support ; Groups Sidestep Question of Making Transponders Impossible to Turn Off

Newspaper article International New York Times

Plan to Track Flights Gains Support ; Groups Sidestep Question of Making Transponders Impossible to Turn Off

Article excerpt

Parties meeting at a Montreal conference dodged a key question: whether aircrews should be able to turn off the transponders that make them visible.

Airlines, governments, pilots and aircraft manufacturers all agreed at a conference here this week that a global system for tracking commercial aircraft is badly needed, a United Nations aviation agency said. But the parties sidestepped a key question: whether aircrews should be able to turn off all the equipment that makes them visible.

The issue gained urgency after Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared nearly without a trace in March, while in flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing with 239 people aboard. The search for the Boeing 777 jet has been greatly complicated by the fact that several onboard communications systems stopped working around the time the plane veered off course. Investigators suspect the systems were deliberately shut off, though they will not be able to say for certain until the wreckage of the plane is found, if then.

The search, focused on remote waters in the Indian Ocean, may take years. In the meantime, safety experts say, it is hard to know what measures might have prevented the disappearance.

Commercial aircraft usually announce their identities and positions through a device called a transponder, and there have been calls to make it difficult or impossible to deactivate transponders from the cockpit, as hijackers have done in several instances and as someone on Flight 370 might have done.

Even so, "there are reasons why you want to have a transponder be able to be turned off," said Nancy J. Graham, director of the air navigation bureau of the United Nations agency, the International Civil Aviation Organization. Agency officials said they would not commit to a tracking system unless it became obvious that the plane disappeared because of a deliberate act. …

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