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Update on 406 ELTs – Our Sector Must Equip

By Kevin Psutka

December 12, 2008

 

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 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 1 February 2009 and others to equip over a two-year period will slip a bit because it was stated at the 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 11 December.

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 on board 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 on board 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% 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% 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.

Transport Canada stated at the meeting that it is doubtful that the regulation will be finalized before the end of January. Faced with this reality, the conversation turned to the proposed transition period that involves a two-year phase-in starting on 1 February 2009, Transport acknowledged COPA’s concern that it will be impossible for many to meet the proposed transition period because of lack of availability of low cost ELTs and scheduling of installation. It is simply unreasonable, for example, to require everyone flying north of 55 North in western Canada or 50 North in eastern Canada, to equip on 1 February 2009. Transport Canada will reconsider the transition period but would not commit to specific dates at the meeting.

Transport Canada reaffirmed that there will be no exemptions for foreign aircraft and that they will be subject to the same transition provisions as Canadian aircraft. In preparation for the meeting, COPA learned from the Canada Border Services Agency that they processed over 63,000 foreign private aircraft in a one-year period from May 2007 to May 2008 and about 90% were US registered. This figure does not account for the large additional number of over-flights of Canadian airspace. The US will not mandate 406 so there will be a huge economic impact on business and tourism from the loss of this sector of trans-border transportation. Transport Canada is not concerned about this issue and our efforts to bring this to the attention of the politicians has failed to stop the development of the regulation.

Since it was clear that Transport Canada will proceed with effectively mandating 406 ELTs for our sector, my effort at the meeting turned to softening the blow. We have already achieved some concessions in the form of reclassifying ELT installations so that AMEs can install most of them and LiSO2 batteries are now acceptable in Canada. I suggested at the meeting that Transport Canada eliminate the annual recertification requirement. Modern batteries have a life of five or six years and the new ELTs have built-in test features to verify the condition of many of the components, rendering most of the recertification process redundant. I also pointed out that there are issues with dangerous goods when tens of thousands of ELTs are shipped around the country every year and that aircraft will fly with nothing on board for up to 30 days each time one is removed for inspection, thereby putting lives at risk. My suggestion was to tie the recertification to the battery life. Transport agreed to review the requirement. If my suggestion is accepted, it will save $400-$600 in each five-year period.

I also pointed out that there are relatively few low cost ELTs approved for Canada. Therefore, many owners will be forced to equip with more expensive ELTs unless the transition period is extended to both give manufacturers of approved low cost ELTs time to produce adequate quantities and to have more types certified. I pointed out that Pointer Avionics, the only Canadian manufacturer of low cost 406 ELTs, has a promising concept incorporating a GPS but it is not yet certified. I pointed out that it would be good, since our sector will be forced to spend millions of dollars in these difficult economic times, if the money could remain in Canada. Transport agreed to step up its efforts to certify the Pointer ELT.

For the near term, here are some things for aircraft owners to consider. Until such time as the regulation is finalized, everyone can continue to operate with their existing ELT. However, monitoring of 121.5 via satellite will cease on 1 February 2009. There will be no extension. If you do not replace your ELT with a 406 one by that date, your only means of alerting will be by over-flying aircraft and by a very limited number of NAV CANADA receivers. It will therefore be more important than ever after 1 February for members to tune a spare radio to 121.5 whenever possible in order to help our fellow pilots in need.

The list of approved ELTs is at http://www.tc.gc.ca/CivilAviation/certification/elt.htm . Be sure to check this list if you are uncertain of the status of a particular ELT you are considering for purchase. If you are considering an ELT from a foreign source, keep in mind that it must be coded for Canada. You could at least incur an additional expense to have it coded.

Whether or not you equip with a 406 ELT now or wait until you are captured by the regulation, you should carry an additional device to adequately protect everyone on board and make up for the shortcomings of ELTs. Don’t be fooled by the statistics that are presented by the government regarding performance. You are being presented with a false sense of security by a justification that is not based on fact.

From this point on the focus of COPA’s effort will be on informing members about the options for equipping with 406; new products and prices as well as the merits of additional devices even if they are not approved. We are encouraging manufacturers to provide us with new product articles.

As we learn of developments and timings of the final regulation, we will provide reports on our web site and in the newspaper.

I hope that as competition develops, we may see the prices for 406 ELTs decrease and that some alternatives may develop to meet the requirement at an affordable price for our sector. For the time being, however, it appears that 406 ELTs will be the only option for our sector of aviation.