The European Cockpit Association (ECA) has called for “intense scrutiny” of the air transport industry’s assessment of risks and the principles of flying over conflict zones in the wake of the July 17 loss of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17.
“We share the public outrage over MH17, and we owe it to the passengers and crew who lost their lives, and all our future passengers, to see past this and focus on prevention first and foremost,” said ECA president Nico Voorbach. “MH17 exposed a significant weakness—if not a failure—of international threat and risk assessment in civil aviation. In hindsight, flying civilian aircraft over an area where powerful anti-aircraft systems capable of bringing down an airliner at cruising altitude are in active use is not acceptable. So the question is what went wrong and how do we fix it?”
Although appropriate risk assessment apparently did occur in the case of Ukraine, it worked for the carriers of only some countries. The fact that some airlines had avoided the area based on their own assessment shows that they enjoyed access to good intelligence and advice from the most powerful national security services, the ECA noted. “It is not right that some countries may provide privileged risk assessment and advice to their carriers, whilst others are left at greater risk,” it said. “After all, this is about people’s lives, not national silos.”
The ECA also cited risks inherent in the restrictions placed on what intelligence an airline can share with other airlines and stakeholders. It called on the industry to ask governments to identify such restrictions and how it can ensure that the airlines can share information in such a way that makes available the highest levels of risk avoidance to all.
“There may also be cases where there is some economic or commercial pressure for airlines to use privileged intelligence information to either fly more directly where it is safer in reality than commonly thought, or to avoid areas where it is less safe than widely understood,” it added. “We would urge stakeholders to develop means to share this sort of security information for the benefit of all, in a way that excludes commercial considerations.”
Under the current system, only nation states can close their own airspace. The International Civil Aviation Organization, for example, can only offer guidance to civil aviation authorities and airlines. The ECA called for a new system that does not rely on war-distressed countries to conduct an honest self-appraisal of its own risks. “They are the last body to be in a position to do this accurately,” it noted. “This is why we suggest an international approach that allows operators to risk assess and avoid efficiently rather than relying on external decision makers.”