The tragedy of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) has highlighted the aviation industry’s fragmented and uncoordinated approach to airspace risk assessment, resulting in growing calls from airlines and industry groups for collective action to address this issue.

The scale of the loss of life resulting from the shootdown over Ukraine, and the anger directed at those responsible for the deaths of 298 people, has been the main focus so far. But there is little doubt that change is coming for the industry, with the degree yet to be determined. 

MH17 is only the latest example of how widely airlines and national authorities differ in their response to airspace security or safety threats. There is very little in the way of centralized directives and guidance, and much of the responsibility for warnings is placed on the local authorities concerned despite the clear potential for political or financial influence.

Questions that are already being debated include whether individual airlines are sufficiently—and equally—able to make judgments about risk in distant regions, whether threat assessments are adequately handled by the country concerned, and whether there should be a broader mechanism for assessing and sharing recommendations.

While ambitious multinational concepts sound attractive in theory, some industry executives warn that they could be difficult to implement in practice—particularly when it comes to the sensitive topic of sharing intelligence.

In terms of solutions, one airline’s top security executive is skeptical about achieving a multilateral approach. “I don’t believe you can resolve the issue on a purely global level. It involves the sharing of sensitive intelligence and that is difficult enough [because it does not] even happen properly on a national or regional level,” he avers. 

However, some type of action is certain. Many airlines and aviation organizations are pushing for representative bodies like the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) to address the risk-assessment issue, and are calling for summit meetings to be convened.

“I think there will have to be new protocols and it will be up to ICAO, IATA and the aviation community to sort out what the protocols have to be,” Emirates President Tim Clark says.

Clark wants an industry conference to discuss steps that need to be taken, and he emphasizes that “the international airline community needs to respond [to the incident] as an entity.” A Lufthansa official states that “we strongly support such a summit.”

Qantas believes that global aviation bodies are best-suited to identify—and be part of—any solution to risk-assessment issues. “Information-sharing in the aviation industry has always been central to making it safer,” says a Qantas spokesman. “The role of IATA and ICAO as global coordinating bodies for all airlines will be key to any industry response to this tragic incident.”

The Flight Safety Foundation has strong views about what has to happen next. It is calling for a “high-level ministerial meeting to review the systems in place to warn airlines of hostile airspace.”

“Where known threats to civil aviation exist, states should assess and widely publish this information, or close the airspace,” the safety foundaton’s President/CEO Jon Beatty says. “If states cannot discharge their responsibilities to manage their airspace safely, ICAO should play a leading role in alerting or prohibiting airlines from flying through known, hostile airspace.”

The British Airline Pilots Association (Balpa) is calling for ICAO to have stronger powers in order to play a larger role in risk assessment.

“ICAO’s purpose should be to lead where national authorities cannot and it should have the tools to do that,” says Balpa General Secretary Jim McAuslan. “The problem of the absence of a clear international coordination to avoid operations above eastern Ukraine has now become tragically obvious, and to avoid a repeat ICAO should be better resourced and enabled to declare airspace unsafe.”

Airspace safety requires “the right information in the right place at the right time,” says Civil Air Navigation Services Organization (Canso) Director General Jeff Poole. Canso recommends convening a thorough review by a joint high-level task force comprising representatives from ICAO, states, and industry, to consider “responsibilities, the systems and processes to be followed and actions to be taken” in regard to airspace risks in conflict zones.


For its part, IATA emphasizes that state-level action is required. “Governments will need to take the lead in reviewing how airspace risk assessments are made,” says IATA Director General Tony Tyler. “And the industry will do all that it can to assist governments, through ICAO, in the difficult work that lies ahead.”

One of the most notable aspects of the MH17 shootdown is the wide range of risk assessments by airlines operating in the region, which is a major crossroads for both east-west and north-south overflights. While some major airlines had opted to avoid eastern Ukraine routes, most kept using them.

How airlines approach risk assessment will no doubt come under more intense scrutiny—as will the apparent lack of uniformity.

Balpa says that the current system of each airline deciding for itself whether to avoid certain airspace is flawed. This approach “can give an illusion of safety but it is in fact vulnerable to all sorts of influences, including commercial pressure, and so it is not surprising to us that there are differences in the way that this risk is assessed by different airlines,” Balpa states. “That is not good enough.”

Another pilot group, the European Cockpit Association (ECA), states that the MH17 incident “exposed a significant weakness—if not a failure—of international threat and risk assessment in civil aviation.”

ECA President Nico Voorbach says that appropriate risk assessment apparently did occur, but only for the carriers of some countries. It appears that some airlines have access to “very good intelligence and advice from the most powerful national security services . . . while others are left at greater risk.” Information should be shared “in such a way that the highest levels of risk avoidance can be rolled out to all,” says Voorbach.

In some cases, national authorities had issued official prohibitions or warnings to their airlines relating to parts of Ukraine’s airspace. Again, however, their content differed significantly.

The FAA had issued a notice preventing U.S. carriers from operating over Crimea. But this did not apply to the eastern Ukraine until after the shootdown, and U.S. carriers had only voluntarily opted to avoid that area. ICAO had also issued warnings concerning Crimean airspace.

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) does not have the authority to close airspace or to prohibit any airlines from flying in specific areas. These responsibilities rest with the European member states.

It is standard practice for many international organizations to defer to the country involved to determine if its airspace is safe to operate in. In the wake of MH17, both Eurocontrol and ICAO stressed that it is the duty of local authorities to assess risk and implement restrictions.

In the case of Ukraine, its aviation authorities restricted overflights in the eastern part of the country to 32,000 ft. and above. MH17 was above this level when it was struck by a missile. Eurocontrol—which handles flow control across European airspace—had adhered to Ukrainian airspace restrictions.

This reliance on the aviation authority from the country under threat raises important questions, however. Financial or political pressures could influence its decision to close airspace, particularly if the country involved is in turmoil.

It is unclear if any such issues affected Ukraine’s risk-assessment process. However, it is worth noting that Ukraine’s air navigation service provider UkSATSE was particularly reliant on overflight fees that stemmed from the busy traffic corridors in its airspace.

Some senior European Commission transportation officials are troubled by the notion that it is left entirely up to individual states to decide whether to open, close or restrict parts of their airspace with little need of explanation as to why it has—or has not—done so.

The EC will focus on rectifying this one-sided approach, a source with ties to the commission says, while noting that it will not rush into drafting a “very rapid, overhasty regulation.”

Other examples of fragmented response to airspace issues have occurred recently. Incidents such as volcanic ash plumes and tensions over airline operations in China’s air defense zone demonstrate that the industry does not act in concert during crises.

Another test of airline risk response came on July 22, when a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip landed close to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. Most airlines were quick to suspend flights to Tel Aviv, perhaps spurred by the wave of criticism directed at airlines following the loss of MH17.

But the response was still far from uniform; Israeli carrier El Al and British Airways continued to operate Tel Aviv services. The FAA temporarily stopped U.S. airlines from flying there—although most carriers had already made that decision—and EASA strongly advised European airlines to avoid the airport until further notice.

Significantly, Israeli aviation authorities did not close the airspace. In fact, Israel urged airlines to keep to their schedules, assuring them that defense systems would be able to protect the airport.

Delta Air Lines was among the first to suspend service to Tel Aviv. During its second-quarter earnings presentation, CEO Richard Anderson gave some interesting insight into the carrier’s risk-assessment process.

Anderson emphasizes that the call to cancel was based on the carrier’s own intelligence-gathering and analysis. “The decision that [we] made…was [taken] well before we heard anything from the FAA,” he says. “A Hamas missile lands a mile from the airport on the north side where we approach on final in a 747 . . . we’re going to make those decisions wholly independent[ly].”

In situations such as this, the carrier may not reinstate flights even when the FAA lifts restrictions, he says.

Delta’s decision-making takes into account intelligence provided by governments, and the carrier has “good cooperation” and regular coordination with both U.S. and foreign officials, Delta’s CEO avers.

While Anderson did not reject the concept of a broader risk-assessment effort, he believes that operational safety decisions are ultimately the airline’s responsibility.

“We have an obligation to make our own risk assessments under our [safety management system] programs,” Anderson says, referring to Delta specifically. “We have a broad and deep security network around the world. We have a very sophisticated capability and methodology to manage these kinds of risks, whether it is [conflicts], or a volcano, or a hurricane.”

However, there are also weaknesses in the airline-specific approach, according to a top security executive with a major international airline that frequently overflies the Ukrainian region.

His airline gathers information through an informal network of sources that comprises other carriers, large corporations in myriad industries and the intelligence community. “The informal networks work well, but they have their limits,” the security executive says. One additional problem is that even in the intelligence community the level of expertise varies greatly from country to country.

In the case of Ukraine, assumptions by airlines and outside experts were proven wrong, notes the executive. The shooting down of an aircraft at cruise altitude was a scenario that no airline had anticipated.

The industry has so far seen shoulder-fired weapons as the main threat (see page 23). But judging threats to aircraft at cruise altitudes is a lot more difficult, the executive posits. “It is impossible to perform a daily risk assessment, because routes are changing every day.

“We rely on the military to keep SAMs [surface-to-air missiles] under control in our security assumptions. In addition to the Ukraine, we see the danger of that no longer being the case in many other places.” He points to failing states in the Middle East such as Syria, Iraq or Libya, where control over arms inventories has been lost.

The executive further criticizes some aviation authorities for lacking the skills and know-how to decide about no-fly zones or limitations in other countries, leaving airlines with little support.

He notes that carriers also avoid some airspace for reasons other than missile threats. His own airline does not fly over Syria because it is concerned air traffic control structures might not function properly. 

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