The Commission continued to play an active role in shaping EU aviation policy when, on 16 December 2015, it announced that it would adopt tougher rules for flight data recorders, underwater location devices and flight tracking systems. EU commissioner for transport Violeta Bulc said, ‘For the general public, it is not understandable that aircraft are not permanently tracked wherever they fly. The rules we adopted today aim to address this deficiency and to prevent the reoccurrence of the disappearances of flights AF447 and MH370. Only days after the adoption of the new Aviation Strategy and the update of the Air Safety List, these new rules are another concrete step to show that safety of European citizens is an absolute priority of the Commission.’

It took two years to locate Air France Flight 447 and Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 is still missing, despite a flaperon belonging to MH370 washing up on La Reunion in September 2015. Although the flight data recorders were retrieved comparatively quickly in the aftermath of the loss of AirAsia Flight QZ8051 over the Java Sea on 28 December 2014, it nevertheless re-ignited debate about the need to improve technology to enable aircraft to be tracked and, if disaster strikes, to be located under water. The UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) adopted a 15-minute Flight Tracking Standard, following its safety conference in Montreal back in February 2015, which shall be implemented by November 2018. ICAO had originally intended to mandate this requirement by November 2016. However, its Normal Aircraft Tracking Implementation Initiative (NATII) Steering Committee, made up of IATA, government officials and airline representatives, raised a number of concerns about achieving compliance in such a short space of time as well as the ‘unrealistic operational burden’ it would place on the industry. Furthermore, compliance is performance-based and not prescriptive, which means that airlines will have discretion to determine whether they comply through either the use of existing or new technologies. Whilst the subject is highly emotive to the public, the costs of tracking aircraft via satellite feed, for example, are prohibitively expensive and do present a commercial challenge.

Airlines will nevertheless need to ensure that certain aircraft are fitted ‘with robust and automatic means’ to track the end of the flight in the event of an accident and cockpit voice recording capabilities will need to be extended from the current 2 to 25 hours. The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has issued a Notice of Proposed Amendment, under EC Regulation 216/2008, and will consult on making changes to existing EU air safety rules and regulations. These changes will apply to all EU operators of aircraft with a maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of more than 27 tonnes and carrying more than 19 passengers, as well as cargo aircraft with a MTOW of more than 45.5 tonnes.