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Plane Tracking

| by Victor Cherubim

( July 26, 2014, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) Over the last three decades travel by air has taken off by leaps and bounds. From Charter flights to no frills discount air travel, passengers have become “liberated” to expect much for less. Airlines have thus sought innovative ways of keeping up with demand.

The focus is becoming more on leisure travel. Airlines to regain profitability after high and volatile fuel costs, economic downturn and raised operating cost, resorted to consolidating services, cutting airline routes and airports and shortening distances in flight, not only with faster aircraft. With mergers of airlines, in Europe (BA with Iberian, Air France with KLM) and in US seven carriers becoming four major airlines, thereby reducing competition for passengers. Masking service, with a strategy of “capacity discipline,” the trend with carriers now is that they are relying on ancillary fees for baggage and other services to adjust demand and added extras for security.

Train spotting as comparison

Smart working by passengers is also seen simultaneously. Aircraft tracking is becoming as popular as “train spotting” in days past, but for a variety of diverse reasons. While train spotting has been a hobby for many generations of enthusiasts, attracting both youth and elders who were so captivated by “spotting” an engine, a particular class of locomotive, steam, diesel or electric, or even a carriage, by logging this data on record books, it was a pastime. Flight tracking, now involves not only the observation together with photography, noise recording and registration numbers of aircraft, helicopters, gliders, military aircraft ranging from Lancaster Bombers to Stealth Bombers and even drones. Monitoring airlines for delays at airports, baggage handling, clearance, take off and landings delays, but more scrutiny of flight paths and flight routes, has become routine “surveillance,” not necessarily at terminals but from home computers.

The attraction for aircraft tracking was in the past, for two main reasons among others. 

Observers and enthusiasts noticed the key attributes of an aircraft, the distinctive noise from an engine, Rolls Royce powered vs. Pratt & Whitney, or even others; the size and make of the aircraft, or possibly the number of vapour trails it leaves, for comparison. More than that, also the sheer enjoyment in spotting various aircraft design in special livery, flight colourful schemes, tail fin and body paint, along with listening attentively on air band scanners to flight conversation exchanged between pilots and Air Traffic Controllers in various dialects and “lingo”, is an added bonus.

Unlike train spotters, who would travel long distances to visit stations, important junctions, sidings and marshalling yards all over UK, in all weather, to have sight of their favourite model and record the engine number with time and place, it was noticed, flight tracking is more a science, an experience rather than pure enjoyment.

The distinctive features of an aircraft have always fascinated aircraft spotters. They track the movement of planes around the world and within national boundaries using such devices as Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast technology or ADS5 decoders. They include Air Nav Systems radar and Kinetic Avionics SBS, both which read and process the radar data and display the reality of movements of aircraft on computer screens.

Concorde landing

It was some years ago on Friday 24 October 2003 just after 4.00 p.m. that I had the rare opportunity of witnessing the landing of the Concorde, on its last flight from New York into Heathrow. I joined the numerous enthusiasts and curious onlookers, who had crowded the perimeter fence at Heathrow for a last look at this landing. It was a sight and the atmosphere was electric, as we all overheard the voice of the Pilot in communication with the Air Traffic Controller, on approach to landing by audible scanner.

Plane Plotter

Now we have moved on with Flightrader24, software, a live air traffic “app” which was originated by two Swedish aviation experts in 2006.This application provides real time information for thousands of aircraft around the globe.

Sadly Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370/MAS370,a scheduled international passenger flight, a Boeing 777-200 ER, with registration No.9M-MROC,carrying 227 passengers from 15 nations and a crew of 12, disappeared on 08 March 2014 enroute from Kuala Lampur to Beijing Capital International Airport.

Flightrader24 did not track any signals from the “transponder,” neither is there any trace of the plane to date. Since the downing of yet another Malaysian Flight MH17 with 298 bodies over Eastern Ukraine, some eight days ago, not only has the sales of Flightrader24 gone viral, but airplane tracking has moved on from being an enthusiast hobby, to being an essential equipment of aircraft travel research.

Why the fascination with Flight Paths?

Bloomberg News reveals, “The growing fascination with flight path stems is in part from the dearth of reliable information surrounding the crash, caused most likely by a missile strike over Eastern Ukraine. Flightrader24 data reveals that the airspace over Ukraine was a popular route before the downing, with MH17 having flown from the same path five days in the past week”.

What has happened since both the above incidents is that the Prime Minister of Ukraine, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, has tendered his resignation, perhaps a key to the tragedy.

While airlines are becoming more vigilant,What is more worrying is that air travel routes are under scrutiny by IATA and passengers are getting concerned about airlines, their flight paths, their age and their service history, thus putting some pressure not only on safety but also on cost escalation.