April 19 (Reuters) - Malaysia Airlines has signed up to a new system to track its planes minute-by-minute, three years after the unexplained disappearance of one of its aircraft carrying 239 people, the providers of the satellite-based system said in a statement.
Flight MH370 went missing on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing in March 2014. Australia, Malaysia, and China called off a two-year underwater search for the aircraft in January.
The new space-based tracking system, due to be operational from 2018, was developed by U.S.-based Aireon, which is working with FlightAware on plane tracking. It will be delivered to Malaysia Airlines by Sitaonair, which provides connectivity products to airlines and works with FlightAware on tracking.
Instead of sending tracking signals to ground stations - which means planes' locations can be lost over oceans or remote areas - the new system will beam them to satellites providing global coverage. It uses existing data from planes and so does not require any modifications to aircraft.
"Real-time, global flight tracking, anywhere on the planet will further its safety goals, by allowing Malaysia Airlines to track its aircraft anytime, anywhere," Aireon Chief Executive Officer Don Thoma said in a statement.
After the disappearance of MH370, regulators and airlines were criticised for responding too slowly to French tracking recommendations after the crash of an Air France plane in 2009.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in response set out plans to impose a 15-minute standard for normal flight tracking, or more frequently in case of emergency, by November 2018.
Aireon is placing its data receivers on Iridium satellites. The first 10 of a planned 66 low-earth orbit satellites were sent up in January 2017.
The space-based system was initially conceived to help air traffic controllers route planes more efficiently, thus helping to reduce fuel costs and improve safety.
Aireon and FlightAware signed up Qatar Airways as the launch customer for their GlobalBeacon tracking service in September. Malaysia Airlines is the first Sitaonair customer to sign up to the scheme.
Daniel Baker, CEO of FlightAware, told Reuters that Qatar and Malaysia will begin receiving data for testing this summer and will be able to use it globally next summer. (Reporting by Victoria Bryan in Berlin; Editing by Elaine Hardcastle)