Bring common sense to 406 ELT issue

By Kevin Psutka


The last chance to bring common sense to the ELT issue, and save our sector of aviation some $100 million, is now in place. It is up to each and every member to help effect change by responding by October 23, to the public consultation phase of the regulation enactment process.

Below you will find details of COPA’s response to the Canada Gazette release. The complete response, including a letter to Transport Canada and attached Word document containing the Gazette wording comments against statements made by Transport Canada can be found on our website homepage.

For the official version of the Gazette, go to English or French.

Please study these documents and then put into your own words why you do not support this regulation. Send your response to the Transport Canada contact contained in the Gazette and I also encourage you to copy your Member of Parliament. You can find out how to reach them here.

The history of this issue can be found here and the key document is COPA’s letter of dissent.

COPA’s extensive position is well known to Transport Canada. The focus of COPA’s response to the Gazette is to address the benefit-cost justification (referred to as the Regulatory Impact Analysis Statement).

For those readers who may be wondering about when you will have to equip, should this amendment proceed, you will not find a transition period in the Gazette because Transport will only release the transition period as an exemption to the regulation and they can only do this after the regulation is in place.

Anything can happen, but current indications are that owners will have to equip with a 406 ELT (broadcasts on 406 MHz and 121.5 MHz and capable of automatic activation) within two years, with some having to convert as early as Feb. 1, 2009.

COPA is not opposed to 406 ELTs but we are opposed to mandating them. When they work, they provide a good means of alerting and locating. However, there are two issues with ELTs. They fail more often than they function as intended.

The recent accident of a Grumman Goose in B.C. where the accident was located relatively quickly because of cell phone is an excellent example of the failure of ELTs. At the time of writing this article we could not find out what type of ELT was installed but assuming that it was either a C91a (updated 121.5 ELT) or C126 (406/121.5 ELT), whose specifications for crash resistance are identical, it is a tragic but excellent example that effectively mandating 406 ELTs will not significantly improve, if at all, our prospects of being found.

It took a very long time to locate the Grumman Goose accident site because there was neither an indication of the location nor a trail leading to the last known position and even DND admitted to the media that had there not been a cell phone involved, the search would have lasted many days.

A second issue with mandating new ELTs is that for many aircraft, the new ELTs are overkill, especially when the installed cost is on average approximately $4,000 according to our research of recent installations that vary from about $2,000 to $9,000.

The $2,000 figure is for aircraft that already have the provisions in place to accept the new ELTs with their more stringent installation requirements. However, the majority of aircraft contain the older C91-compliant ELTs (if you have no cockpit switch for the ELT, it is a C91). For many of these aircraft, significant modifications may be required and this will drive up your cost.

Many aircraft never fly in sparsely settled areas of the country and therefore should not be required to equip with this expensive technology. There are several more affordable options for these situations that will provide adequate notification and location. However, the wording chosen by Transport Canada prevents any of these alternatives from being acceptable, thereby mandating 406 ELTs.

COPA proposed a compromise that would meet the needs of the Search and Rescue community and address our concerns. We proposed that the requirement remain to have an ELT but that for those who choose not to replace their existing ELT, they should have an alternative means of contacting a rescue coordination centre. TC partially listened by providing a regulation that permits alternatives but the wording chosen by TC prohibits all current alternatives from being acceptable.

So, effectively TC is mandating the new ELTs for our sector of aviation.

The following are some of COPA’s Comments on the Gazette Announcement.

Transport Canada claims that 406 is much better than the predecessor ELTs however they ignore significant limitations that may even offset its benefits.

For example, the new ELTs take up to one minute to send the first signal; a very long time in an accident sequence. Furthermore, COPA has recently learned from a SAR expert that the GEOSAR geostationary satellites that receive the 406 alerting signal have limitations in latitude (unreliable above 70N) and mountainous terrain such that for 40 per cent of Canada the ability to receive the 406 signal is degraded.

Transport Canada places a great deal of emphasis on the improvement that the transmission of ownership information in the alert signal brings to reducing the resolution of false alerts. First of all, the number of false alerts will most likely not appreciably decrease because the same reasons for them will continue.

Transport Canada hopes that false alerts will be resolved sooner because the first reaction will be to contact the owner. However, if no one is available at the contact number, SAR will have no choice but to initiate a search. Therefore, it is highly doubtful if the move to 406 will realize such dramatic improvement as Transport Canada assumes.

Transport Canada claims that the Canadian emergency detection situation is unique in the world. Canada is not unique and therefore this should not be used as justification for proceeding out of step with other similar countries.

The United States has similar large areas that are sparely settled, subject to weather extremes and have infrequent over-flying air traffic. Most notable are areas of the high plains of the desert southwest, where Steve Fossett disappeared in a small aircraft and was never found after extensive searching, and Alaska, with its very rugged terrain and weather extremes.

Despite extensive aviation activity in Alaska and a very challenging SAR region in Alaska, which also has very extensive aviation activity, the U.S. has indicated that it has no intention of changing its current ELT regulation, leaving it up to each owner to decide what is best for their operation and location.

This is a reasonable way to go. Australia, a country with vast areas of harsh conditions and a large general aviation population, only requires a PLB.

Transport Canada places considerable emphasis on automatic activation as a key requirement. Dependence on a technology in which the device has to survive the crash in order to do its job has resulted in a high failure rate, thereby putting lives in jeopardy.

The recent accident of a Grumman Goose in B.C., where a cell phone was instrumental to the rescue, is a case in point. The passengers in the rear of the aircraft survived. This is where the ELT would be located. It should have sent a signal but none was received.

The new ELTs also must survive the crash and meet the same crash resistance requirements as their predecessors, so it can be expected that the high failure rate will continue. And the limitation of the GEOSAR satellites mentioned in an earlier comment may actually increase search time over the current system.

Transport Canada claims that it has to effectively mandate 406 in order to meet international commitments. This is not true. The ICAO requirements for 406 ELTs are for international operations.

ELTs are only recommended for domestic operations, so Canada is able to choose another route for domestic operations without violating its international obligations.

It is misleading to imply that Canada would not be meeting its international commitments should they choose to adopt another solution for domestic operations. Transport Canada has chosen, at great expense to our sector of aviation, to be in excess of ICAO requirements with no firm justification for this position.

Transport Canada developed a benefit-cost table to demonstrate that the net benefit in terms of the value of lives saved and the cost to equip is positive. This calculation significantly understates the costs.

They estimate that the total cost to equip for private aviation will be $39 million. Transport Canada estimates that the average cost per installation is $2,167 for private aircraft. Invoices received to date by COPA indicate for private aircraft that installed costs range from $2,000 for a simple replacement of a C91a ELT to $9,000 for one incorporating a GPS interface to an aircraft-installed GPS.

Since the majority of current installations are C91, it will cost more to install a 406 MHz ELT in most aircraft because of the additional installation requirements. Therefore, the cost to private aviation is more realistically in the range from $60 million to $162 million, with an average of about $100 million.

Even if we assume that the majority of owners will go for the so-called low cost ELTs, the average cost for the fleet will be well in excess of the stated $39 million. The cost is grossly understated by Transport Canada and therefore the cost-benefit statement is misleading.

The benefit-cost table does not include the negative affect of lives lost because of the frequent failure of ELTs to automatically activate and get a signal up to satellites. The table only reflects the positive estimate of lives saved by ELTs.

The benefit-cost table does not include the significant loss to our economy from foreign aircraft, in particular U.S. aircraft that will be prohibited from entering our airspace if they do not equip with 406. Although this is difficult to quantify, there will be a significant impact on the net benefit calculation.

The assumption, based on Transportation Safety Board (TSB) reports, that 406 MHz ELTs will perform better is not based on any facts. Since TSB does not report on ELT performance for all accidents, and they fail to differentiate between C91 and C91a, there is no way to determine that 406 MHz ELTs will in fact perform any better than their predecessors.

In addition to the quantified benefits, based on estimates rather than facts, Transport Canada made several statements about other benefits:

"Rapid confirmation of a distress situation"

  • As mentioned earlier, GEOSAR satellite performance is degraded at latitudes above 70 north and mountainous terrain. Forty per cent of Canada is either above 70 North or mountainous. Therefore, in many crashes where the ELT antenna is less than ideally positioned, the likelihood of detection is lower and may even be less than the older generation satellites.

"Measured relief response"

  • While it is true that 406 MHz ELTs, when they survive a crash, can provide an indication of the maximum number of persons involved because of the ELT being matched to a particular aircraft, ELTs cannot provide any indication of level of distress. Consequently, SAR will have to commit to a full response in every situation. Several alternative devices that are not permitted by this regulation have features that can indicate levels of distress and hence can provide a better "measured response" than ELTs. These devices can also be matched to a particular aircraft, thereby providing the same and more features than an ELT.

"Improved crash location accuracy on initial transmission"

  • The majority of private aircraft will likely equip with the least costly ELT; one that does not include the capability to interface with a GPS. Basic 406 MHz ELTs rely on the same outdated Doppler location technique as their predecessors for establishing location. Given the state of the satellite constellation, it can take 30 minutes or longer to process a 406 MHz signal. The initial transmission provides an alert only and it will take time to determine location because of dependence on the outdated Doppler technique.

"A greater proportion of 406 MHz ELTs will survive crash forces than first generation 121.5 MHz ELTs"

  • There is no proof of this statement. The same issues remain. ELTs fail to automatically activate because antennas break off, wreckage is inverted or sinks or the ELT is destroyed on impact or consumed by fire. A more robust specification will not resolve these failure causes. In addition, a severe limitation of 406 MHz ELTs is that it takes up to one minute to generate its first alert to the satellites, which is a very long time during a crash sequence. In crashes where the ELT will be affected very quickly in the crash sequence, there will be no satellite alert.

"Forty-folder decrease in false alerts"

  • This assumes that the contact person is available. Otherwise, SAR will have no choice but to initiate a search.

"Reduced SAR personnel exposure to risks"

  • It is logical to assume that there will be a degree of non-compliance, in particular from foreign owners who will either ignore or be ignorant of the requirement. This will most likely balance out the assumed benefit or actually put more SAR personnel at risk.

In a statement concerning consultation, Transport Canada says that the Canadian Aviation Regulations Advisory Committee (CARAC), on which COPA participates with other industry stakeholders, "recommended these proposed amendments during their meeting of December 2003." This is a false statement.

The Committee did agree on an amendment that would not mandate 406 MHz ELTs in Canadian domestic airspace. That amendment, which in no way resembles the amendments in the Gazette, was subsequently withdrawn after senior Transport Canada officials rejected it.

The committee subsequently developed amendments at their November 2007 meeting but these were unilaterally amended in significant ways by senior management and not consulted.

Upon seeing the statement in the Gazette, I contacted Transport Canada and they confirmed that my recollection of the facts is correct. They say that their error will be corrected when the regulation becomes law. This error illustrates how one-sided and misleading the Gazette is in selling the public on the government’s preferred solution.

Transport Canada claims that "Stakeholders support this proposal with the exception of COPA". Since the senior management’s unilateral amendment has not been consulted within the CARAC process, Transport Canada has no idea whether or not other stakeholders support this proposal.

It is unfair and misleading to characterize COPA as being the only organization opposed to this amendment. Others who were not extensively involved or followed the developments subsequent to the CARAC Committee meeting may be opposed to these developments.

For those members of COPA who are also members of other organizations, you may wish to ask your leaders where they stand on this issue.

Regarding COPA’s opposition, Transport Canada over-simplified the reasons for our opposition in an attempt to downplay it. COPA opposed these proposed amendments for many more reasons, as detailed in our letter of dissent filed in January.

It is unfair and misleading to downplay our extensive and reasoned opposition with such a simple statement.

Alternate means of emergency location must provide immediate notification. No device, including 406 MHz ELTs, is capable of immediate notification. Therefore, alternate devices and services are being held to a higher standard than ELTs, and effectively 406 ELTs are being mandated.

Alternate means must also allow the aircraft to be located within 2.7 nm. Several alternate means provide much better accuracy than basic 406 ELTs. However, the only way they could qualify would be if they broadcast continuously, which is cost prohibitive for both private and commercial operators.

The Gazette comment period until October 23, is our last chance to stop this regulation. Please take the time to lend your perspective.