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Flying over the fighting

July 30, 2014

The UN's aviation body and industry officials have agreed on the need for better communication when plotting flight paths over sensitive regions. The Montreal emergency summit was prompted by the MH17 crash in Ukraine.

Ukraine Absturzstelle MH-17
Image: Reuters

The UN's International Civil Aviation Authority (ICAO) said on Tuesday that it would convene a high-level meeting on safety next February in the wake of the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine.

"The downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 is unacceptable," the ICAO said in a joint statement released after the summit, expressing condolences for passengers and crew killed. "While aviation is the safest form of transport, the MH17 incident has raised troubling concerns with respect to civilian aircraft operating to, from and over conflict zones."

The ICAO statement cited an "essential need for information and intelligence that might affect the safety of our passengers and crew" when flying over conflict zones, conceding that this was "a highly complex and politically sensitive area of international coordination."

Flugabwehrraketensystem Buk
Officials in Montreal mooted changes to international law on anti-aircraft weaponryImage: picture-alliance/dpa

As a result, the ICAO announced the formation of a "senior-level Task Force composed of state and industry experts," which would look at how to best collect and disseminate information for flights over conflict zones. These findings would be submitted at the next ICAO meeting, called for February 2015. European Commission Vice President Siim Kallas said on Twitter that the EU would be pleased to provide such information about sensitive regions.

Focus on anti-aircraft weaponry, rules

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents most major airlines, was among the participants in Tuesday's meeting. With pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine accused of shooting down MH17 from high altitude - requiring sophisticated weaponry - IATA director Tony Tyler raised questions about international laws governing the manufacture and use of anti-aircraft weapons.

"MH17 has demonstrated that powerful and sophisticated anti-aircraft weaponry is in the hands of non-state industries," said Tyler. "Civil aircraft are instruments of peace and they should never be the target of weapons of war. But there's no international law or convention that imposes on states a duty to manage the design, manufacture, and deployment of anti-aircraft weapons."

Tyler also argued that providing more information to commercial airlines on conflict zones would not necessarily compromise a state's desire to keep sensitive intelligence secret.

"Even sensitive information can be sanitized in a way that ensures that airlines get essential and actionable information without compromising their sources," Tyler said.

Israel Flughafen 24.7.2014
Flights to Tel Aviv were briefly grounded after MH17 and amid fighting with GazaImage: Reuters

'We are not intelligence agencies'

The commercial director of Malaysia Airlines, which was still reeling from the mysterious loss of Flight MH370 in March when its Boeing 777 went down in Ukraine almost two weeks ago, had appealed in this weekend's Sunday Telegraph newspaper for an overhaul of the process designating safe flight paths.

"For too long, airlines have been shouldering the responsibility for making decisions about what constitutes a safe flight path, over areas in political turmoil around the world," Malaysia Airlines' Hugh Dunleavy wrote in the British paper. "We are not intelligence agencies, but airlines, charged with carrying passengers in comfort between destinations."

Flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur crashed on July 17 in eastern Ukraine and is broadly believed to have been shot down. The US and the government in Ukraine have alleged that pro-Russian separatists in the east of Ukraine downed the airliner, using weaponry supplied by Russia. Ukrainian airspace had not been officially closed at the time of the crash, a responsibility that would lie with the government in Kyiv, but some carriers had elected to avoid the region as a precaution.

Many flights into Tel Aviv airport in Israel were canceled last week in response to the conflict with Gaza and a Hamas rocket falling near the airport. An Air Algerie flight also went down in Mali last week; investigations are ongoing but officials have identified bad weather as the likely cause of the crash.

msh/jm (AFP, dpa, Reuters)