London Inmarsat plc (LON:ISAT) enjoys a virtual monopoly of satellite-based aircraft tracking. Its trackers are installed on nearly 100 percent of commercial aircraft, with both Airbus, a subsidiary of The European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company N.V. (EADS) (EPA:EAD), and The Boeing Company (BA), installing it on all their large jets.
The recent tragic loss of Malaysian Airlines jet MH370 highlighted the unsettling secret that many aircraft in today’s era of high-tech tracking remain untracked — officially, at least.
The company began life as a nonprofit to provide geostationary satellite services, including aircraft tracking, under a mandate by the United Nations. But ultimately the company was privatized and turned into a for-profit provider. Today over a quarter (28 percent) of Inmarsat is owned by the Harbinger Group Inc.’s (HBG) investment wing, Harbinger Capital.
Inmarsat’s tracking technology is seen here in action at its headquarters in London, UK.
[Image Source: Reuters]
Harbinger is the fund headed by embattled investor Philip Falcone who created a serious controversy in late 2011 and early 2012 when he nearly convinced the Obama administration to approve satellite LTE — a scheme that was proven to create catastrophic interference with an estimated 75 percent of GPS equipment. What made matters worse was that Mr. Falcone had reportedly paid off the Obama administration with large fundraising efforts, raising the all-too-familiar outcry over corruption and special interests in Washington, D.C. Mr. Falcone is also currently being charged with fraud over his activities with Harbinger Capital.
In addition to the Falcone factor, many simply were upset to find out that Inmarsat would sell devices to Boeing and Airbus, and then charge it additional ongoing fees to keep those systems active. Many felt this was a danger to national security efforts.
The situation became even more awkward when Inmarstat revealed it actually could track the disabled units (and to some extent was actively tracking them). Even if Inmarsat’s claim that it just invented that capability is to be believed, it is clear that it is now tracking everyone — whether or not you pay it.
And the MH370 situation was a critical test which proved that in such cases the pressure on Inmarsat would be too great to withhold such data, simply because an airline didn’t pay its ongoing subscription fees.
So Inmarsat bit the bullet and this week announced that it would be offering the tracking service (in its fully activated form) for free. The inactive secondary tracking will also presumably be available, to provide some level of tracking in case a person in charge of the craft was to attempt to turn off or sabotage in-aircraft systems.
A Malaysian Airlines Boeing 737 jet [Image Source: The Washington Post]
Rupert Pearce, CEO of Inmarsat, lauded his company’s decision to make the “black box in the cloud” for free. He comments:
We welcome and strongly support ICAO’s decision to place the delivery of next-generation aviation safety services at the heart of the industry’s agenda at its meeting on 12th May. Inmarsat has been providing global aviation safety services for over 20 years and we are confident that the proposals we have presented to ICAO and IATA represent a major contribution to enhancing aviation safety services on a global basis. In the wake of the loss of MH370, we believe this is simply the right thing to do.
Because of the universal nature of existing Inmarsat aviation services, our proposals can be implemented right away on all ocean-going commercial aircraft using equipment that is already installed. Furthermore, our leading aviation safety partners are fully supportive of expanded use of the ADS-C Service through the Inmarsat network. This offer responsibly, quickly and at little or no cost to the industry, addresses in part the problem brought to light by the recent tragic events around MH370.
Inmarsat also plans to learn from the lessons of MH370 and incorporate enhanced location tracking features with the help of aircraft manufacturers into new and existing aircraft. Such features could activate if unusual events such as deviation from the flight plan or sudden changes in altitude occur. Such features would stay active even if someone tried to switch off the primary location services.
The new free service shouldn’t make too much of a dent in Inmersat’s bottom line. After, all for a company that used to be a nonprofit is not doing too bad for itself, having pocked over $100M USD last year in profit on revenue of $1.26B USD.
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