By Allison Martell
MONTREAL (Reuters) - United Nations aviation officials gathered in Canada on Monday to discuss better tracking of aircraft in the highest-level response yet to safety concerns raised by the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in March.
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.
"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 in Montreal.
"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 United Nations' International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is hosting the talks 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.
As the aviation world gathered, Inmarsat, the British satellite communications company that pointed the search for flight MH370 to the Indian Ocean, said it would offer a free and basic tracking service to its customers, which include most of the world's airlines.
The company said the service would be offered to all 11,000 commercial passenger aircraft that are already equipped with Inmarsat satellite connections, comprising virtually 100 percent of the world's long-haul commercial fleet.
COST AND INFRASTRUCTURE
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.
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.
The EU paper also warned that some existing satellite-based cockpit systems could also be vulnerable to cyber attack.
(Additional reporting by Brenda Goh; Writing by Tim Hepher; Editing by David Goodman)