NEW YORK/MONTREAL, May 14 (Reuters) - In the aftermath of the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370, companies that provide satellite connections and WiFi service to airplanes are battling for a lucrative new market: selling plane-tracking services.
The United Nation's aviation agency gave industry the green light on Tuesday to improve aircraft tracking on a voluntary basis while it develops mandatory standards.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak added pressure by calling for the agency to require real-time tracking of civilian aircraft, a mandate that could create a market worth billions of dollars to companies that make the systems, such as Inmarsat PLC and Iridium Communications Inc.
Satellite providers say their systems could have easily tracked the missing Malaysian jet, had the plane's tracking equipment remained in operation. The plane disappeared from tracking screens on March 8 during a routine flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, presumably because its transponder was shut off.
Many airlines already track their planes through status updates from the plane, a system known as ACARS. The providers say existing technology could allow for more effective monitoring of flight paths. But authorities must ultimately make a political decision over what sort of tracking they should require, and whether equipment such as transponders should be designed so pilots cannot disable them in flight. Authorities believe that's what happened with the Malaysian flight.
By allowing industry to voluntarily improve tracking before regulations become official, the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) opened the door to much wider use of the existing technology. It did not indicate any leaning toward a particular technology.
A battle royal for share of the tracking market has already begun. Inmarsat, a satellite company whose data helped track the missing Malaysia Air flight, has offered to provide tracking at no cost to airlines.
Rivals say Inmarsat's offer of free service is misleading, since outfitting a jet with the system could cost more than $100,000. The competitors say their products can track planes with existing technology and have other benefits besides.
"We think it's a bit disingenuous, what (Inmarsat) is saying," Matthew Desch, Iridium's chief executive, told Reuters.
Iridium's network of 66 low-Earth orbit satellites already receive cockpit data and cover the globe. It is launching new satellites over the next two years to provide greater tracking ability to new generation air traffic control systems.
"If it was mandated that satellite data links needed to be on every aircraft, I think we're going to get the primary benefit of that, not Inmarsat," Desch said. "Their system is extremely expensive compared with ours."
If ICAO said only Inmarsat was mandated, then that would pose a threat, he acknowledged.
"But I just don't think that would be part of the solution," he said. "That would be an extremely expensive solution to a problem that is being solved many other ways, much less expensively -- either today through existing technologies or in the future through Aireon."
Aireon is Iridium's next-generation system to enable air-traffic controllers to see all planes moving globally in real time, he said. Canada, Ireland, the UK and Denmark are among those already signed with Aireon. The United States is considering it.
The rivalry underscores that many technologies exist to track planes.
"Today the technology exists to equip all planes with all the measures for location that are necessary and to allow us to have more information in real time than we have today," Marwan Lahoud, chief strategy and marketing officer at Airbus Group , said on France's BFM radio. "It is not a question of technology, but a political question and a question of the will of authorities.
"You have a smartphone like everyone and you know how often this sort of equipment doesn't work or else works with a delay," he said. "So what is important is that if the authorities decide to equip planes, they must be equipped with systems which are certified for aerospace and are reliable."
Aireon and other systems are among the parts of a broader next-generation air traffic control system being rolled out this decade. With more precise location data, air traffic controllers can space airplanes more closely, allowing for more flights.
Desch said Iridium didn't design its system to find a missing aircraft. "It is designed to make air travel more efficient and safe, cutting down on fuel expense and allowing more jets in the airspace.
"And by the way it knows where every airplane is all the time."
Another avenue for better tracking exists in satellite-based Wifi systems that are increasingly being used on airplanes.
"We have the tracking information that's coming off the plane," said Don Buchman, vice president at ViaSat, which supplies connectivity to JetBlue Airways, United Airlines and others.
ViaSat's system tracks latitude and longitude of aircraft, and could pinpoint the location to between four and 10 nautical miles, the same standard that ICAO is considering, he said.
To be sure, both the Iridium and ViaSat systems are vulnerable should a pilot or hijacker shut down the transmitter during flight, severing the data link. Airplanes generally are equipped with circuit breakers as a precaution against an electrical fire.
Satellite tracking even in remote regions is already possible. Indeed, Iridium's Desch said the variety of systems available is one factor slowing the decision by nations on which tracking system to adopt.
National aviation regulators and ICAO committees "are going to go through all different solutions," he said. "I would encourage them to use existing technologies where they can."
Additional reporting by Tim Hepher; Editing by Frank McGurty and Leslie Adler