The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) would have to boost its budget by 3% to pay a web-based information database to provide airlines, air navigation service providers and member states a source of safety information about the risks to flights over and within conflict zones. The $2.5 million-per-year investment represents $13,000 per state.

The details are included in a series of reports by the Task Force on Risks to Aviation in Conflict Zones (TF-RCZ), a group formed by ICAO in the wake of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, most likely by a surface-to-air missile (SAM), near Donetsk in eastern Ukraine last July. The downing occurred in an area of active military conflict, but where high-altitude routes remained open.

ICAO is debating potential solutions to this problem, as well as global flight tracking and other issues, at its High Level Safety Conference in Montreal this week.

The Dutch Safety Board has not released its final report on the MH17 crash. Its preliminary report concluded that the aircraft was brought down by something consistent with a missile strike, citing fuselage damage “consistent with [the aircraft] being punctured” from the outside “by high-energy objects” among its reasons. The Boeing 777-200ER was destroyed while in cruise flight at 33,000 ft. on its way to Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam, killing all 298 on board.

The TF-RCZ and its various subgroups has been exploring through pilot projects how to define conflict zone threats, as well as how to compile and distribute the information to help states monitor airspace they control and issue warnings or close airspace when necessary.

The group initially envisioned using the existing Notice To Airmen (Notam) system that alerts airspace users and airports of navigation, infrastructure or other deficiencies, but found the required modifications to the system would take 18 months to complete. A better alternative was a to augment the Notam system with a web-based portal that ICAO would host. Eurocontrol is already operating a prototype system.

The TF-RCZ also studied how to generate threat information based on input from ICAO’s Aviation Security Panel Working Group on Threat and Risk (WGTR). Suggestions, based in part on input from 21 states, included establishing within each state a multi-agency threat-assessment center, with participation from the civil aviation authority, and having the airlines conduct their own risk assessments with input from the national authorities.

Evidence for risk appears to mimic the MH17 scenario: local presence of SAMs, an area of armed conflict, military or unmanned aircraft being used in a combat role, aircraft being used to transport ground troops or military equipment, “poorly trained or inexperienced personnel” operating the SAMs, a lack of “effective” air traffic management caused by the state responsible for that airspace not having full control of its own territory, and routing that passes over or close to assets of “high strategic importance.”

The WGTR considers the potential for intentional and unintentional long-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) attacks to be of low risk, however, despite 70 states having the weapons and others wanting them. 

“The WGTR would assess the current risk from intentional attack as low, primarily due to the fact that where intent may exist, there is currently no evidence of capability in terms of hardware and trained personnel,” the group says. 

While past events suggest a higher risk from unintentional attacks, in particular confusing a military target with a civilian aircraft, the group says those events are also rare, and of low risk.