| by Ruwantissa Abeyratne

( August 9, 2014, Montreal, Sri Lanka Guardian) A common response of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) - the specialized agency of the United Nations on international civil aviation - to both the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH 370 in March 2014, presumably over the Indian Ocean - and Flight MH 17 of the same airline which was shot down in Ukraine in July the same year, was to establish a task force each to address the two tragedies. The ICAO Task Force on Flight MH 17 - officially called Task Force on Risks to Civil Aviation Arising from Conflict Zones (TF RCZ) is scheduled to meet on 14-15 August 2014.

On 12 and 13 May 2014, in response to the disappearance of Flight MH 370, ICAO convened a special meeting of State and industry experts on the global tracking of airline flights. The purpose of this meeting was to explore the need for globally tracking airline flights and existing technologies to support it. The two-day meeting addressed the following issues: what technologies are available; the limitations of these technologies; and other obstacles, including any non-technical issues. The meeting resulted in what ICAO called " Conclusions and Recommendations" which regrettably were riddled with ambivalent statements that lacked specific tasks and other details. The Conclusions and Recommendations are categorized into three time zones: near term; midterm; and long term. In the near term there is a blanket statement that " global tracking of airline flights will be pursued as a matter of priority to provide early notice of and response to abnormal flight behaviour". There is no explanation as to who will do the tracking and how it will be done. Then there is another statement for the near term that a draft concept of operations on flight tracking will be developed that includes a clear definition of the objectives of flight tracking that ensures that information is provided in a timely fashion to the right people to support search and rescue, recovery and accident investigation activities, as well as, the roles and responsibilities of all stakeholders. One is baffled by the term "draft concept of operations" as to what exactly it means. Who will develop this mysterious document or process?

Another unclear statement is " under the ICAO framework, the contribution by the industry through an Aircraft Tracking Task Force (ATTF) will help address the near-term needs for flight tracking". What is this "ICAO framework"? and what is the "industry" referred to here? Is it the manufacturing industry, the air transport industry or the service providers? Or is it the entire aviation industry which comprises all the above?

Perhaps the most confusing statement for the near term is " ICAO will consider establishing a short term joint ICAO/IATA advisory group to support the global tracking initiative". What is there to consider? When will ICAO make up its mind?

Some of the other befuddled statements are that ICAO should increase its resources allocated to the Search and Rescue in order to improve the effectiveness across national and regional boundaries;

ICAO should, in collaboration with a pool of search and rescue experts, identify and address operational search and rescue challenges with implementation of existing Annex 12 provisions, and provide assistance to States, including aiding in the setting of priorities for the mid and long term; ICAO should facilitate the sharing of experience and lessons learned from States that were recently involved in accidents where flight tracking could have facilitated search and rescue efforts to all other States; and ICAO should strongly encourage States to regularly run practice exercises involving airlines operation centres, air navigation service providers (ANSPs) and rescue coordination centres (RCCs) to test and verify their ability to respond and coordinate together in an integrated manner to abnormal flight behaviour scenarios.

The use of the word "should" seems to give ICAO the choice and one wonders why these statements did not say "ICAO will...". The word "should" occurs throughout the mid-term and long term goals making confusion worse confounded.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has suggested that the Task Force on MH 370 examine available options for tracking commercial airplanes, considering implementation, time, complexity and cost efficiency to achieve the desired coverage. In particular, the Task Force will assess the responses to the ICAO vendor survey and examine existing capabilities to determine potential solutions against elements such as reporting parameters and intervals, reliability, accuracy and coverage. The Task Force will develop recommended options based on performance requirements to implement global airplane tracking. It was IATA's recommendation that the Task Force would develop a draft report with recommendations within 120 days. Following required coordination, the Task Force will issue its final report within 150 days of the Multidisciplinary Meeting.

As for Flight MH 17, and indeed even with regard to MH 370, both Task Forces have to concentrate on one common thread - sharing of communication. The way forward in responding to the unfortunate and sad fate of the lives on board Flight MH 17 and the total destruction of the aircraft seems to rest on the critical need for sharing threat information in a timely and efficient manner. If Malaysian Airlines Flight MH 370 is anything to go by, where both ICAO and the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) failed to advise both States and airlines of the existence of a database at INTERPOL on forged or fraudulent passports, ICAO and other key players concerned would have to adopt a more serious approach to the problem. Information sharing is a central process through which team members collectively utilize their available informational resources. Information retrieval becomes a key element in information sharing. The ICAO appointed Task Force would have to perform their task on the basis that, as digitally mediated communication and information sharing increase, collaborative information retrieval merits greater attention and support.

Perhaps the most important issue both Task Forces must address is the individual role to be played by each international and industry partner and the legal justification and legitimacy of those roles. Without this the ICAO Council would not get the purpose and direction of the thrust of the task force's findings.

Another consideration is that if, as required, ICAO were to ensure disseminating threat information, it would make the Organization go way beyond the basic expectations of its aims and objectives, which is to develop principles and techniques of air navigation. There is also the issue of what is required in the entire process of developing an efficient and effective threat information sharing system. The key players responsible for ensuring the success of this process would have to be given sufficient resources, be able to identify problems early, engage in detailed training and continuous practice, maintain excellent flows of communication, and encourage trust and shared value amongst all concerned.