The United Nations aviation agency will propose a new standard that requires commercial aircraft to report their position every 15 minutes as part of a global tracking initiative in the aftermath of the disappearance of a Malaysian jetliner.
The loss of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 last March sparked a global drive for a system that would make it possible to pinpoint the exact route and last location of an aircraft.
An International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) spokesman said on Tuesday that the standard, if adopted, could go into effect in the near term because it would not require new technology on planes. ICAO members are set to discuss the proposal at a major safety conference in Montreal next month.
Airline industry group International Air Transport Association (IATA) promised to lead an industry task force last year on the issue and to voluntarily improve tracking while ICAO developed its standard.
In December, that industry task force recommended that airlines start tracking planes in at least 15 minute intervals within 12 months, but IATA itself balked, saying the deadline was not practical.
ICAO spokesman Anthony Philbin called the ICAO scheme a "foundational flight tracking standard." The agency is developing more stringent tracking recommendations.
"If (member states) agree to the standard, the safety conference will also be asked how quickly it expects it to be implemented and if it would want ICAO to expedite that process," Philbin told Reuters via email. "Once our states have made their views known in that regard, we'll have a better idea of the time frame."
ICAO could effectively force airlines to act because the standards it sets typically become regulatory requirements in its 191 member states. But the agency prefers to make decisions by consensus, making February's conference crucial.
Many airlines already track their planes using satellite systems. An ICAO working paper recently noted that the majority of long-haul aircraft already have systems on board that can transmit their position.
But it noted that the equipment is not always turned on and that in some locations, including along polar routes, there are gaps in satellite coverage.
Asked if radio could be used to meet the draft standard, ICAO's Philbin said voice communication could serve as a fallback for planes that do not have newer technology.