Opinion: How To Keep Civil Flights Safe In Conflict Zones

crash site of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752
Rescue teams at the scene of the crash of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, which was shot down shortly after takeoff from Imam Khomeini International Airport near Iran’s capital, Tehran.
Credit: Akbar Tavakoli/IRNA/AFP/Getty Images

It took the Iranian Aircraft Accident Investigation Board (AAIB) 14 months to complete its final report on Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 (PS752), a Boeing 737 that was shot down just after departure from Tehran, Iran, en route to Kiev, Ukraine, on Jan. 8, 2020. The AAIB took so long not because it was difficult to investigate the factors leading to the accident but because it was a civil report about military action in a country in which the investigation board is not independent, as it should be according to International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) conventions.

The issue of military and state interference with civil aviation and the dangerous consequences for passengers and crew has been fueled again recently by the diversion by Belarusian forces to Minsk, Belarus, of Ryanair Flight 4978, bound for Vilnius, Lithuania, in order to arrest a Belarusian journalist and his partner. Although the cases are very different, they show that political interests put civil flights into unacceptable danger.

PS752 was brought down by the detonation of the warhead of the first of two missiles fired by Iranian air defense. Iranian military leaders have been given credit for acknowledging their responsibility, three days after the tragedy, for the death of the 176 people onboard.

In the days before the accident, tensions in the region were rising after a U.S. drone attack in Iraq killed Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani. After an Iranian counterattack against U.S. bases in the early hours of Jan. 8, the Iranian military was on its highest alert level. A mobile air defense unit was routinely relocated to the area south of Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport. But the unit staff failed to realign the radar properly, leading to an image that was wrongly shifted by 105 deg. Upon return to duty after a break, the individuals handling the air defense unit were confronted with a primary target on their radar screen that appeared to be approaching Tehran from the southwest. Without further inquiries or communication with the command center, they launched two missiles at the target.

The target at which they fired was a civil Boeing 737 following its cleared instrument departure route and displaying the proper transponder code for identification. Hours before the accident, news about the Iranian counterattack on U.S. forces had been published as a notice to airmen (NOTAM). Nevertheless, the airspace had not been closed to civil traffic. Four airways to and from Iraq were evacuated and closed, as Iran feared an attack aircraft might sneak in behind civil aircraft on those routes. The final report concludes that the misidentification of the Boeing 737 was human error.

But this was only part of the chain of events; the main reasons for the accident are organizational. The Iranian air defense unit itself had no technical equipment to verify aircraft types in real time, according to the report. The airspace of a country expecting a military strike remained open. Ukraine International Airlines President Evgeniy Dykhne put it like this: “Our flight was at the wrong place at the wrong time. Any aircraft could have been at our place in Tehran.”

Past events, too, show that many countries tend to keep their civil airspace open even if they are aware of crisis situations. They want to keep the economy running, keep trade and private visits going and avoid an indication of weakness. Additionally, countries receive overflight and landing fees. When Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) was shot down in 2014 over Ukraine, the airspace below 32,000 ft. was closed due to military activity, but the Boeing 777-200ER was shot down at 33,000 ft.

Another conflict zone is Israel, a small country surrounded by enemies. Its largest airport in Tel Aviv is protected by the Iron Dome missile defense system, which Israel says will destroy 90% of all approaching rockets if their paths are computed as a threat. That might sound pretty good—but it is not within the level of risk deemed acceptable by the airline industry and civil aviation safety regulators.

Many large airlines have their own security departments, but their analysis of security situations depends on the quality of information they receive from their own government contacts and how widespread and well-financed their network is. In the field of intelligence, the currency is information. The danger is that if you do not have much information to share with other services, you will not get much back. In a developing crisis, governments often are not inclined to share sensitive data with airlines.

In the aftermath of MH17 seven years ago, the Dutch Safety Board (DSB) made enormous efforts to investigate the case and make recommendations. One of the initiatives set in motion by the DSB was to form a “one-stop” platform under the umbrella of ICAO to share information about crisis areas and related risks. It was stopped quickly, as countries objected to anyone but themselves publishing information about hazards in their airspace.

How can the airline industry reduce the risk of another civil aircraft being in the wrong place at the wrong time? There are several possible avenues to pursue. Airline members of the three global alliances—Oneworld, SkyTeam and the Star Alliance—should share information among themselves and build a network to warn each other when to avoid an airspace or destination for security reasons. They should jointly stop flying to crisis areas if one member airline recommends this based on credible information. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has not played that role in the past.

Another supporting measure should be to extend audits. The ICAO Universal Security Audit should include an evaluation of the safety barriers in place to avoid misidentification and at what stage of military activity a country will close its airspace and civil airports. The IATA Operational Safety Audit (IOSA) should be extended beyond an airline’s organizational structure to describe the necessary security system and its risk assessment mechanisms to the point where flights will be canceled.

As the aircraft misidentifications leading to these accidents were unintentional, the aircraft OEMs should discuss with militaries technical solutions for aircraft identification. Whether an adaptation of automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast could be used or other means are necessary should be part of the discussion.

In the case of Ryanair Flight 4978, the pilots received a “recommendation” by Belarus air traffic control to divert to Minsk—with a MiG-29 fighter jet flying beside them. They were told that Belarusian authorities had been “informed about a bomb on board that can be activated in the area of Vilnius.” The aircraft at the time was closer to its destination of Vilnius than to Minsk.

This interference with civil air traffic to arrest a dissident journalist was followed by a European Union Aviation Safety Agency safety directive to avoid the airspace of Belarus. The case shows that one government was willing to endanger a civil flight to reach political goals—but also that a quick and coordinated international reaction is possible. Sadly, if such timely avoidance of crisis areas had been mobilized elsewhere in the past, many lives could have been saved.

Decades ago, pilots had to learn that windshear and downdrafts have devastating potential. As the meteorological dangers cannot be easily detected, the established rule for them was simple: Avoid, avoid, avoid. Civil aviation needs to coordinate and reinforce its efforts to detect, communicate about and avoid the dangers of military misidentification and flying in dangerous airspace.

Tim Wuerfel is an Airbus A320 captain at a major international airline. He has also flown the DC-8, DC-9, MD-11, Boeing 737 and 747.