Update on 406 ELT’s: Our sector must equip


I will cut to the chase. We are at the end of the long battle to bring common sense to this issue. Common sense has not prevailed. Transport Canada (TC) has decided to proceed with a multi-million dollar regulation that will require virtually all light aircraft owners to equip with a 406 MHz Emergency Locator Transmitter.

Gliders, balloons, ultralights, parachute aircraft and a limited number of other operations will be exempt.

The proposed transition period that would have required some owners to equip by Feb. 1, 2009 and others to equip over a two-year period will slip a bit because it was stated at the TC meeting that it is highly doubtful, given the state of our government and its ability or willingness to process complicated issues like this one, that this will proceed to Gazette Part II and into law by the end of January.


Now for the details

I will not repeat the many reasons why mandating 406 ELTs does not make sense. This has been covered many times in the course of this issue. Instead, I will concentrate on what occurred at a meeting with Transport Canada on Dec. 11, 2008.

An unprecedented number of responses to the Gazette consultation process and an unprecedented number of enquiries from Members of Parliament on behalf of their constituents caused Transport Canada to call a meeting of key stakeholders, including COPA, to examine the possibility of modifying the proposed regulation.

The Department of National Defence (DND) attended the meeting and held to their position that any alternative to 406 ELTs must be able to provide the same performance as they claim is provided by the ELT system: without activation from someone onboard the aircraft, provide notification of distress to a Rescue Coordination Centre within 15 minutes from automatic activation and provide the distress location within 2.7 nm (5 km).

Upon questioning from me about performance above 70 North and in mountainous regions, DND acknowledged that the notification time may be double or more in some situations because of satellite coverage and terrain masking.

I have long maintained that the 406 system is excellent when it works but the key component of the system, the onboard ELT, fails at an unacceptable rate. Without this key component, it does not matter that the rest of the system may be working perfectly. When the ELT fails the SAR folks have nothing to help narrow the search area.

Transport Canada’s Merlin Preuss picked up on this point and challenged DND to specify what reliability they need from an alternative system or from the 406 system for that matter.

DND stated that their research indicates that there will be a failure rate of less than 25 per cent for 406 ELTs. This is an assumption because, of course, there is no reliable data on the performance of 406 since there are so few in existence. And because the Transportation Safety Board does not comment on ELT performance for all accidents, no one has solid data on performance.

Thanks to some hard work by a couple of COPA members, we gathered data on the past few years of reports from the Canadian Aviation Daily Occurrence Reporting System (CADORS) to indicate that there is a 75 per cent failure rate. I presented this at the meeting to counter DND’s claims of a much lower failure rate.

DND claimed that our high failure rate is due to the fact that the majority of ELTs are old technology and that 406 will be much better.

There is absolutely no proof of this claim. Transport Canada decided to proceed with effectively mandating 406 ELTs despite this significant issue.

In preparation for the meeting, Transport Canada prepared some draft wording in order to soften the notification time (it was "immediate") and location accuracy (it was 2.7 nm) and consequently accommodate some tracking services. Although no specific numbers were determined at the meeting, it is clear that no matter what is chosen by Transport Canada for the maximum time to provide notification and the maximum location accuracy, it will preclude all affordable alternatives for our sector for the foreseeable future.

Tracking services that could qualify currently cost thousands of dollars to install and thousands of dollars per year for the service, plus someone would be required to monitor flights real time for missing position reports and take action within a relatively short period of time.

So, while it appears that it will be possible for some commercial operators to purchase a commercial tracking service that will also fulfill a distress function, it will be out of reach for our sector, certainly within the timeframe that we will be required to equip.

It was clear at the meeting that Personal Locator Beacons and affordable tracking devices such as the SPOT Personal Tracker will not meet any revised performance criteria that Transport Canada may develop.

I stated that the only way that devices such as SPOT could qualify would be if notification was tied to the expiry of a flight plan and the location accuracy would have to be around 30 nm; the distance between 10 minute position reports at the typical top speed that smaller aircraft fly.

I also stated that the one-size-fits-all approach should not be applied. While it may make sense to require higher performance for commercial operations or over certain areas of Canada, our sector of aviation does not require this level of service. It was clear at the meeting that Transport Canada was not prepared to go this far.

see presidents column February