By Allison Martell
MONTREAL (Reuters) - The United Nations aviation agency said on Tuesday that the industry would voluntarily begin to improve aircraft tracking while the body develops mandatory standards following the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) gave no firm timeline for when those binding standards on flight tracking would go into effect, reflecting the challenge of reaching an agreement with industry and governments around the world on a longstanding problem.
"A standard takes longer, it takes time. The process of cooperation is long but it's important," said Nancy Graham, director of ICAO's Air Navigation Bureau, at a press conference.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak called for the body to adopt real-time tracking of civilian aircraft and other measures.
"In an age of smartphones and mobile Internet, real-time tracking of commercial airplanes is long overdue," he said in a signed article in the Wall Street Journal. Najib also recommended changing airplane communications systems so they could not be disabled in mid-flight and prolonging the battery life of "black boxes", which record cockpit conversations and aircraft data, to make them easier to locate after accidents.
"These changes may not have prevented the MH370 or Air France 447 tragedies," he said, referring to an Air France flight that crashed en route to Paris from Brazil in 2009. "But they would make it harder for an aircraft to simply disappear, and easier to find any aircraft that did."
Najib also accepted that Malaysian authorities delayed getting a search operation for MH370 under way after Boeing 777 disappeared from air traffic control screens on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing just over two months ago.
"The response time should and will be investigated," he said.
No trace of Flight MH370 has been found since it went missing on March 8, despite the most intensive search in commercial aviation history.
The countries that belong to ICAO's governing council met with industry groups on Monday and Tuesday in Montreal. They agreed global tracking of aircraft was needed following the disappearance of flight MH370, but did not commit to a binding, global solution or say when they would do so.
Instead, a task force set up by global airline industry group the International Air Transport Association (IATA) agreed to come up with proposals for better tracking by the end of September, and IATA said its members would begin implementing them voluntarily, before any rules were in place.
Kevin Hiatt, IATA's senior vice president for safety and flight operations, said the task force would offer ICAO guidance as it develops binding standards.
"They're going to take it and obviously they will review it very closely and take it to their Commission, but we have a much better chance of the ... standards coming back the other way to basically embrace what we're already doing," he said.
PROCEDURES VARY WIDELY
Inadequate tracking has been among the factors blamed for the failure to locate MH370, which is presumed to have crashed with 239 people on board in a remote part of the Indian Ocean about 1,600 km (1,000 miles) northwest of Perth, Australia.
Some airlines do track their aircraft around the world, but procedures vary widely.
Created in 1944, Montreal-based ICAO coordinates between the 191 states that have signed the Chicago Convention, the main treaty that governs civil aviation. The organization sets binding standards, and prefers to find a consensus among member countries, which is time-consuming.
"The real issue is who is in charge of mandating better tracking," said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst at Teal Group, in Fairfax, Virginia.
"If it is the industry, they will have to bear all the uncertainty about technical change, negotiations with pilots and so on. It is not just about nickel and diming in safety, there is real uncertainty."
It has been nearly five years since French crash investigators recommended better tracking in the aftermath of the crash of Air France 447.
Hiatt, with IATA, said no task force was needed after the Air France crash because authorities knew enough to locate the wreckage within a few days: "MH370 went some place that we didn't exactly know, where with Air France there was a good idea of where it went," he said.
ICAO noted the substantial investment required by some airlines to install tracking gear. It asked the meeting to recommend that any standards ICAO backs be as widely adopted as possible, not rule out emerging technologies and be part of a solution that does more than simply track flights.
"Things move slowly as there are so many agencies as well as companies," Aboulafia said. "Throw in uncertainty on costs and technological change that might make a major investment obsolete and it is a recipe for confusion."
(Reporting by Allison Martell in Montreal, Alwyn Scott in New York, Tim Hepher in Paris and Raju Gopalakrishnan in Singapore; Editing by Bernard Orr and Alex Richardson)