Their official launch wasn’t planned for weeks, but Aireon, a McLean, Va.,-based company made headlines in March after it provided critical flight data to the Federal Aviation Administration that led to the agency’s decision to ground all Boeing 737 Max jets.
Current ground-based systems track aircraft, but offer coverage for only about 30 percent of the globe, leaving wide swaths of ocean and portions of some countries, uncovered. Aireon, however, is the first company to offer real-time tracking of aircraft operations around the world using a global network of satellites.
In the case of the Ethiopian Airlines flight that crashed in Addis Ababa on March 10, Aireon was able to give the FAA information about the plane’s position and trajectory. The FAA would have eventually been able to get the same details itself, but it would have had to wait until the plane’s data recorders had been recovered and analyzed.
The system, which was still in beta testing when it provided the data to the FAA, went live Tuesday, and at an event in Washington marking the occasion, chief executive Don Thoma recounted how the company became involved with the FAA’s decision to ground the Boeing 737 Max.
The day of the crash, FAA officials reached out to Aireon to see if the company could offer any insight into what might have happened, Thoma said.
“Literally, the same day of the accident they contacted us asking us if we had data, because this occurred, obviously, in Africa where there was no data source,” Thoma said. “They hadn’t collected the black box yet, and we provided that data to the FAA and NTSB accident investigators at that point in time so that they could look at that data.”
Over the next two days, Aireon officials worked with the FAA to refine the data, which ultimately showed that in the minutes before it crashed, the Ethiopian Airlines jet flew a similar up and down pattern to that of a Lion Air 737 Max 8 that crashed into the Java Sea on Oct. 29. Acting FAA Administration Daniel K. Elwell cited the data provided by Aireon in announcing his decision to ground the jets on March 13.
Still, Thoma was quick to note that Aireon’s role was strictly informational and that the data the company provided was only one piece of the investigation.
“We’re not aircraft accident investigators,” he said. “We’re the data source. We made that available.”
Thoma said the information the company provided about the Ethiopian Airlines flight is only one of the ways, Aireon’s systems can be used to improve the safety and efficiency of the world’s aviation system. Because Aireon offers the ability to better track aircraft, it can help planes fly more direct routes, which saves fuel. An analysis by Nats, a U. K-based air traffic control company and the International Civil Aviation Organization estimated a cost savings of up to $300 per transatlantic flight for users of the system.