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Transport Canada effectively mandates 406 ELTs

February, 2008

By Kevin Psutka


In the January edition of COPA Flight I explained the impending change in the regulation of Emergency Locator Transmitters (ELTs) in Canada and COPA’s 10-year effort to seek low-cost alternatives.

I reported agreement had been reached at a recent meeting between industry and Transport Canada on the wording for the revised regulation. I cautioned everyone that I do not usually report on the details of a regulatory change until the rule is in place because anything can happen as the issue works its way through the hallowed halls of government.

However, because of the short time horizon until owners will be required to invest in replacement technology (February 2009), I felt it was important to inform and educate everyone so that they can plan and purchase. I thought that we had achieved most of what we were seeking.

Well, CARC (a senior management committee of Transport Canada) has made significant changes to the wording so that low-cost alternatives to ELTs have all but been ruled out for our sector of aviation.

Although consensus was achieved at a November 2007 meeting of the Canadian Aviation Regulations Advisory Council (CARAC), this was achieved without the Department of National Defence (DND), a major player tasked with search and rescue in Canada, who decided not to attend the meeting.

Instead, DND chose to submit a short letter of dissent after the meeting. Essentially, they want either a 406 ELT or any other device or service that performs the same or better. Senior management at Transport Canada has decided to side with DND and go against the industry consensus.

Although CARC claims that their changes to the regulation retains their commitment to permit alternatives, in fact for our sector of aviation there are no alternatives.

Following is an explanation of the eight-page COPA dissent that has been submitted to Franz Reinhardt, Director, Policy & Regulatory Services at Transport Canada following COPA’s receipt of the CARC decision. The entire dissent, including attachments, is available on our web site.

ELTs fail at an alarming rate

COPA’s primary concern, emphasized many times over the 10-year history of this issue, is that a fixed alerting device that depends on surviving an accident has proven to be an unreliable method for signalling distress.

The more expensive it is to install, the less the cost-benefit analysis makes sense. It is like being asked to pay more for your insurance but having no assurance that you will be able to collect on it.

Although no one could definitively determine how often ELTs fail to activate automatically and long enough to help determine the accident location, consensus from Canadian as well as international sources is that in the majority of accidents ELTs fail.

The COPA letter of dissent pointed out an acknowledgement by DND in one of their reports from a study in 2000 that in at least 50 per cent of the occurrences where there was “true distress” the “ELT did not activate”.

The COPA letter of dissent also pointed out that while perhaps there may be some improvement with the more robust specification for 406 ELTs, the fundamental causes of failure will continue because the device, cabling and antenna must still survive the accident, and there is no evidence that the tighter specification will significantly reduce the failures.

Transport Canada failed to address opportunities to reduce costs

The COPA letter of dissent highlighted the cost issue and attempts on COPA’s part to encourage the government to take action to help reduce the cost. In 1999, Northern Airborne Technologies (NAT) investigated the possibility of reducing the cost and several recommendations were made to reduce the cost. Only one recommendation was followed; funding for low-cost ELT development.

This effort failed when the company contracted to develop the low-cost ELT decided for unspecified reasons not to proceed to production.

Another recommendation in the NAT report was elimination of Airworthiness Directive CF-81-29R2 banning use of LiSO2 batteries, which would significantly increase the availability of ELTs in Canada. To date, Transport Canada has refused to change their position even though elsewhere in the world the revised specification has solved the problem.

In the eight years since the NAT report was released, Transport Canada has failed to take positive action to reduce the cost of ELTs.

Transport Canada is reneging on its commitment not to mandate ELTs

The COPA dissent letter highlighted that COPA’s effort to seek alternatives led to a commitment by the then Director General Civil Aviation, Art Laflamme, to not mandate 406 MHz ELTs. However, by 2004, Transport Canada began to stray from the commitment.

The first attempt at a revised regulation that permitted alternatives was passed by the CARAC Technical Committee but rejected by CARC because, in CARC’s opinion, the NPAs did not adequately address the ICAO standards.

In response to the failure of the first attempt at a revised regulation, the COPA Board of Directors passed the following resolution in October 2004:

  • Whereas ELTs have shown themselves to not activate properly in all instances, and;
  • Whereas other and potentially superior technology is finding its way into the industry.
  • Be it resolved that the COPA Board does not support the forced implementation of 406 MHz ELTs, and;
  • Be it resolved that COPA deplores the decision by the government to renege on its previous decision to not mandate equipage with 406 MHz ELTs.

Subsequent to this resolution and in an attempt to develop another version of the regulation, Transport Canada decided to conduct a risk assessment of alternatives. This extensive effort culminated in development of Notice of Proposed Amendments (NPAs) by Transport Canada staff, which were brought to the CARAC Technical Committee meeting in November 2007 for debate and consensus.

The NPAs that were presented at the November meeting were inadequate and did not reflect the results of the risk assessment process. However, changes were made to the NPAs during that meeting to COPA and everyone else’s satisfaction, including the Transport Canada participants.

DND reacted to the outcome of the CARAC meeting by filing a dissent directly to CARC, who then made very significant changes, thereby destroying the intent of the extensive effort through many years.

There are no alternatives for our sector of aviation

In the latest version of the NPA “alternative means” of providing notification and location are permitted and notification must be “without activation from the crew.” COPA was opposed to the requirement for notification without activation from the crew because it precludes all Personal Locator Beacons and other excellent devices, but we went along with this constraint because tracking devices providing a breadcrumb trail leading to the vicinity of an accident, a concept that does not require activation from the crew and does not have to survive an accident, were permitted by the version of the NPAs that was developed by the Technical Committee. It was a reasonable compromise.

However, CARC then imposed severe constraints in the NPAs to preclude all known tracking devices from serving as alternatives. The revised NPAs now state that the alternative means “shall be a system” and although a tracking device, referred to as an Electronic Locator Device (ELD) can be part of a system, it cannot stand alone.

The acceptability of an ELD as an alternative is further constrained because the NPAs now refer to an occurrence as being a “distress signal” from an ELD. Although many existing tracking devices have the capability of sending a distress message, they can only do so if some action is taken by the crew. The automatic distress signal from tracking devices is essentially the failure to continue reporting or repeated reporting from one location.

The acceptability of a system is further constrained by the new requirement in the NPAs for a monitoring service for an ELD and that the service be “continuous.” Deliberations at the CARAC meeting tied monitoring to the expiry of the flight plan as an acceptable means but this provision has been removed.

Even though some existing tracking devices such as SPOT have, as part of the service, continuous monitoring for the distress message (the 911 feature for SPOT), activation on the part of the crew is required. Therefore, these tracking devices do not meet the new requirement.

Essentially, the NPA requires automatic activation at the time of an accident. There is no existing means to do this, within the constraints imposed by the NPAs, except by an ELT.

The acceptability of any system is also severely constrained by the requirement in the NPA for the third party to “immediately receive and forward” information.

To determine if any existing service can meet this requirement, I contacted some of the agencies who could potentially provide this service and all have responded that liability issues would most likely prevent them from offering this service.
COPA’s dissent letter encouraged Transport Canada review their choice of the word “immediate” because this alone most likely will prevent any tracking devices or services from ever being an alternative means.

The revised NPA now requires any device to provide location within 2.7 nautical miles, effectively precluding any tracking device from being acceptable. Even though most tracking devices provide much more accurate location information, the only way that a periodically reporting device could qualify, given the new constraints in the NPA, would be if the time between reports was short enough so that the distance travelled from the last report to the next expected report is no longer than 2.7 nautical miles.

Given that the cost of a tracking device monitoring service is dependent in part on the frequency of messages, it would likely be cost-prohibitive for our sector of aviation. To illustrate this assertion, COPA’s dissent letter pointed out that although it is technically possible to provide reports every few seconds, most commercial users of existing tracking services are choosing reports of 10 minutes because of the cost for more frequent “hits”. If commercial users cannot afford more frequent reports, our sector certainly will not be able to do so.

Despite the obvious advantages of devices that provide a trail leading to the vicinity of an accident and very accurate GPS coordinates with every report, the only alternative that is now permitted is one that provides information only if it survives the crash. If it does not survive, search crews will be faced with no information to narrow down the search area. They will be forced to search from the takeoff point to where the aircraft was expected to arrive; a very large search area indeed. Given that there is no evidence to prove that 406 ELTs will be appreciably more reliable than their predecessors, lives will be at risk because of the revised NPAs.

Other alternatives are permitted however our sector of aviation cannot use them

One option is “an air traffic control system that provides continuous radar coverage under an IFR flight plan”. During deliberations in the CARAC meeting, “radar coverage” was changed to “surveillance” for a good reason. Nav Canada is introducing multi-lateration as a surveillance tool, initially in the Fort McMurray area and Vancouver lower mainland.

COPA’s dissent letter urged Transport Canada to educate its staff about how it works and then reinsert “surveillance” into the regulation. Otherwise, aircraft that are adequately tracked by ATC using multi-lateration will be precluded from taking advantage of this alternate means.

Furthermore, the deliberations of the CARAC meeting added VFR flight following. This was done because there is no difference, as far as location of an accident is concerned, between an IFR flight and a VFR flight that is “tagged” by ATC.
While the level of service provided by ATC is different, aircraft on VFR flight following, for the purposes of location, will be just as good as IFR. Since the vast majority of private aviation is not IFR qualified, the IFR flight plan alternative is therefore not available for the majority of our sector of aviation.

Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast (ADS-B), which in part provides tracking of an aircraft to the ground, is permitted. Since ADS-B will not be available for our sector of aviation for the foreseeable future and the transition period to the new regulation will be relatively short, aircraft owners will be required to invest in 406 ELTs anyway.

When ADS-B comes into place at some point in the future, owners will be required to make further investment for what will essentially be a duplication of alerting capability. It would be much better to permit affordable alternatives during the period until ADS-B is expanded and becomes affordable for our sector.

Type A “flight dispatch system” (referred to in CARs as an “operational control system”) is another permitted alternative but this is only available to the airlines.

Our sector of aviation is being held to a higher standard than the airlines

One of the most contentious issues in the revised NPAs is that ELDs and related systems are now held to a higher standard than 406 ELTs and other alternatives. This just does not make sense.

The acceptability of an ELD, as part of a system, is constrained by the new requirement in the NPA for notification of an “aircraft occurrence” (undefined anywhere in the CARs) to be “immediate.” The dictionary definition of immediate is “accomplished without loss or interval of time.”

Clearly, any device that reports periodically cannot meet this requirement. It is important to note that 406 ELTs are also devices that report periodically (every 50 seconds) and that they are permitted to take up to one minute to send the first message to the satellites. One minute is a long time during a crash sequence and it is certainly not “immediate.” So, the revised NPAs appear to hold ELDs to a higher standard than an ELT.

An air traffic control system with continuous radar coverage is a lower standard than is required of an ELD system.
Keeping in mind the NPAs do not permit any action from the crew, let’s examine a situation where an aircraft under radar surveillance comes into distress. Even if the controller immediately notices that an aircraft is descending or that it has suddenly disappeared from the radar screen, such as from a complete power loss or in-flight break-up, the altitude and speeds at which many IFR aircraft fly will result in a very large area of uncertainty from the last known location, certainly more than the 2.7 nautical miles requirement in the latest version of the NPAs.

Type A Operational Control Systems are also a lower standard than for an ELD and an ELT. CAR 725.20 requires reports in domestic airspace at least once per hour. Type A systems may therefore allow location inaccuracies of 500 miles at airliner speeds. And even if an Aircraft Situation Display System is employed (permitted by CAR 725.20) with a maximum of five minutes between reports, this is a long time given the speeds at which airliners travel, and certainly well in excess of the 2.7 nautical mile accuracy that ELDs are being held to.
Since it is apparent that other alternate means are less stringent than the requirements for an ELD system, which for the most part would be employed by our sector, the NPAs are holding our sector to a higher standard than others, in particular large commercial airliners.

Transition period could ground thousands of aircraft

COPA’s dissent letter also addressed the unresolved issue of the transition period. Normally, the industry is given seven years to adopt changes. This is recommended by ICAO in order to help the airlines deal with the cost of complying.

For this reason, COPA became active on this issue in 1998 in order to encourage Transport Canada to develop affordable alternatives and commit to a regulation well ahead of the 2009 deadline.

COPA’s dissent letter pointed out that should Transport Canada insist on proceeding with mandating 406 ELTs for our sector of aviation, there are some issues that, if not addressed, will ground thousands of aircraft.

Transport Canada indicated that it is considering a 12 to 18 month transition period for compliance. There are two factors that will affect the ability of aircraft owners to comply; availability of compliant, low cost ELTs and the level of maintenance organization that can perform the installation.

COPA’s research of available low cost ELTs indicates that there are very few available or likely to be available for the large number of aircraft in the short transition period. A check with one of the largest manufacturers, Artex, revealed that the maximum production capability of their low-cost ME406 model is 500 per month for the world market.

The COPA dissent letter also pointed out that it is not good enough to say that other higher priced models are available to fill the demand. The requirement to equip with 406 ELTs will be a very significant economic issue for our sector of aviation.
Forcing owners to equip with much more expensive models or be grounded will only compound this significant issue. We pointed out that Transport Canada should be sensitive to the cost issue and provide sufficient time to equip with low cost models by setting a realistic transition period.

Also, it is important to note the reality that many owners may not become aware of the requirement to equip until their annual inspection is due, and then only if the AME knows and brings it to their attention. This surprise may give owners very little time to comply if a short transition period is chosen.

In order to reduce the cost to install for many aircraft that will require structural modifications and installation of cable, switch and antenna, owners should be given time to become aware of the requirement, plan for and purchase an ELT and have it installed as part of the annual inspection when panels and seats will be removed anyway. Given the issues cited above, COPA recommended a transition period should be at least three years.

Choice of ELT is limited by battery prohibition

A contributing factor in the shortage of qualified ELTs is Transport Canada’s continuing reluctance to review and eliminate the prohibition on LiSO2 batteries. Although some manufacturers are modifying their ELTs to include LiMnO2 batteries, there are many more available with LiSO2 batteries.

Having ELTs with LiSO2 batteries qualify for use in Canada would go part way to alleviate the shortage. The specification for airborne use LiSO2 batteries was changed many years ago and to COPA’s knowledge the problems have been eliminated, certainly to the satisfaction of other authorities who permit these batteries.

As recommended by COPA in 1999, Transport Canada should get on with eliminating the prohibition.

ELT installations should be minor modifications

Another factor affecting the ability of owners to comply is the current requirement for ELTs to be installed by avionics shops. This requirement crept in several years ago, for no good reason that COPA can find.

Installation of an ELT should be considered a minor modification. The advantage is obvious. With a limited number of avionics shops and tens of thousands of aircraft to equip, it will be many years before all can comply.

If this recommendation is not considered or the transition period significantly lengthened, thousands of aircraft will be grounded.

Lack of harmonization with the U.S. will ban N-registered aircraft from Canada.

During the many years this issue has been in place, COPA cautioned Transport Canada to coordinate with the U.S. on this requirement. To date, indications are the U.S. will not mandate 406 ELTs.

With the removal of the provision from the current regulation 605.38(2)(c) to permit foreign aircraft with other devices, and given that the NPAs effectively mandate 406 ELTs, thousands of U.S. aircraft will be banned from Canada.

This will pose a particular problem for the hundreds if not thousands of aircraft transiting to and from Alaska each year. The loss to our economy from this barrier to entry is a significant factor.

To permit these aircraft without ELTs would be unfair to those who are required to equip here and ultimately to the taxpayer who would have to fund the search effort for foreign aircraft with no devices on board.

It is important to note the difference of approach to this issue by the FAA. According to Rob Hackman at AOPA-U.S., the FAA has no intention of changing the existing requirements because this agency has nothing to gain.

Airworthiness and the efficient movement of aircraft are not improved by ELTs. In fact, the only reason why there is an ELT regulation now is it was put in place by Congress as a result of two Congressmen disappearing in Alaska many years ago.

Although it is impossible to say what may happen, at this point in time there is no indication the U.S. government will mandate 406 ELTs.

The CARAC process failed

Finally, COPA’s dissent letter decried the way this issue was handled by CARC. The extensive efforts by many people from industry and the government resulted in a report and recommendations for the CARAC Technical Committee, who accepted the report. The CARAC Technical Committee meeting was the vehicle for achieving consensus and in the end it was achieved.

Despite DND’s explanation of an unfortunate failure to attend the meeting, this meeting was the forum for airing views and working toward a consensus. Normally, the next level of review and acceptance provided by CARC either sends the change on to legal vetting, makes minor changes and sends it on or, if there are significant changes to be made, it is sent back to CARAC for further work.

The dissent presented by DND directly to CARC had no chance for debate or counter-point. Furthermore, the revised NPAs from the CARAC meeting were not reviewed by members for accuracy before proceeding to CARC. Consequently, the CARC made a decision without complete information.

COPA’s review of the revisions made by CARC indicates that CARC may not fully understand the ramifications of the wording they have chosen. This issue is potentially one of the most expensive changes to face our sector of aviation. It deserves more careful consideration than was apparent in the revised NPAs.

Advice for COPA members

So, what is next, and what should members do? Again I caution everyone that until the regulation becomes law, it can change.

Assuming Transport Canada does not return to wording that would permit affordable alternatives, the next opportunity for comment will be when the draft regulation is announced publicly in Gazette Part I. There is normally a 60-day period for comment.

One of the requirements is for the government to justify, in terms of a cost-benefit analysis, that the change is required. A Regulatory Impact Analysis Statement (RIAS) will be created. If the benefits (both social and economic) outweigh the costs, the change will go ahead.

This is an important step and one in which you can contribute. When the Gazette date is known, you will be informed on our website and, if there is time, in the newspaper.

There is another mechanism for issues reporting that you can take advantage of now. Transport Canada has the Civil Aviation Issues Reporting System (CAIRS) where an online or downloadable form can be completed or sent to Transport Canada. Perhaps if enough people let them know how this will affect them, Transport Canada may rethink its position. I urge everyone to review the various documents on COPA's web site, determine how this will affect them, and then submit issues to Transport Canada. This does not replace the Gazetting process. I urge everyone to submit their views when the Gazette is released.

COPA is collecting estimates and invoices for installation. So far, we have received ones ranging from a low-end of about $2500 to a high end of $10,000.

The cost for our entire sector to equip may be as much a $100 million so it will be interesting to see how the government will justify this huge expenditure over a very short period of time. Your perspective on the issue, provided directly to the government as part of the Gazette process, will be important.

In the interim until the regulation is finalized, which could be late Spring this year, the current regulation remains in place. So, your currently installed C91 or C91a compliant ELT is acceptable.

If you are in the market for an ELT now, you have a choice between equipping with a C91a compliant ELT that broadcasts on 121.5 and 243.0 MHz, and a C126 compliant ELT that broadcasts on 121.5 and 406 MHz. The battery must not be LiSO2 and, for a 406 ELT, it must be coded for Canada and registered with the National Search and Rescue Secretariat

If you can find a 406 ELT that you can afford to install, you should equip because no matter how this issue turns out, 406 will be an acceptable solution. Be sure that the 406 ELT is coded for Canada.

Remember the shortcoming of 406 ELTs that do not start broadcasting to the satellites until up to one minute after activation. Turn on the cockpit switch before an emergency landing to maximize the chance that a distress message will get out.

Regardless of which ELT you are equipped with, every aircraft should also carry a non-ELT device such as a Personal Locator Beacon, a tracking device such as SPOT (which was described in the January article) or a satellite phone in order to address the likelihood that the ELT will fail to do its job.

Carrying another device on board the aircraft will be particularly important if, during the transition period when satellite monitoring of 121.5 has ceased, you have not yet equipped with 406. There will be no detection capability, other than by passing aircraft, for those aircraft not equipped with 406.

COPA is working on affiliation deals with suppliers of devices to try to minimize cost for COPA members. As of this report, nothing is in place but we hope to have something to report soon.

When the regulation is finalized, COPA will provide an explanation of the options for various ELTs and other devices. We encourage suppliers to provide articles to explain the merits of their offerings.