Conflict zone has become a buzzword. The shooting down of Ukranian flight reminiscent of MH17 flight has brought to the fore aviation safety concern, writes WOLE SHADARE
Eyes on the ball
Here is the level of inconsistency reached in international air transport. Take each passenger, scrutinize their booking, check the no-fly-list, watch them on CCTV, pull them apart at TSA, remove anything sharper than a pen, question them, x-ray the bags, run explosive trace detection tests, screen the hold baggage, background check every member of the crew, and then, once they’ve all boarded, fly this ultra-secure airplane straight into a war zone.
The downing of Ukranian Flight PS752 killing all 176 passengers including a Nigerian, Dauda Onoruoiza, has again brought to the fore the safety of civil aviation flight operations in a conflict zone and further expanded the discourse of what airlines should do to promote safety in such situation.
Armed conflicts, both declared and undeclared, exist in many areas of the world. The situation in these conflict zones can change rapidly with both escalation and de-escalation occurring with little or no warning.
While a conflict will almost certainly pose a risk to aircraft operating within the affected area, aircraft in proximity to, or overflying, the conflict zone may also be subject to an increased risk.
The tension between the United States and Iran had been on for a very long time. It was just a matter of time before the crisis snowballed into a near war. The United States had fired missiles to key Iranian formations and the assassination of Qasem Soleimani.
He was an Iranian Major General in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and from 1998 until his death in 2020, commander of its Quds Force, a division primarily responsible for extraterritorial military and clandestine operations.
The death of the Iranian strongman and plans by Iran to retaliate heightened tension especially in Iran and their neighbours.
On the day Flight PS756 was hit by a missile by Iranian forces, airlines took the decision to suspend flights into the area sensing the type of danger that befell Ukranian flight.
Major airlines canceled Iran and Iraq flights on Wednesday and re-routed others away from both countries’ airspace, following an Iranian missile strike on United States-led forces in Iraq.
Germany’s Lufthansa, Dubai-based Emirates and low-cost flydubai were among airlines that canceled flights, as the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration barred American carriers from the area. But several other carriers continued operations over the affected airspace.
Iran fired more than a dozen ballistic missiles from its territory targeting at least two Iraqi military bases hosting U.S-led coalition personnel early on Wednesday, the U.S. military said.
Within hours, the FAA barred U.S. carriers from airspace over Iran, the Gulf of Oman and the waters between Iran and Saudi Arabia, citing “heightened military activities and increased political tensions in the Middle East, which present an inadvertent risk to U.S. civil aviation operations.”
The flight ban came shortly before a Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737 burst into flames shortly after take-off from Tehran, killing all 176 people aboard in a crash blamed by Ukrainian authorities on an engine failure.
Non-U.S. operators are not bound by the FAA’s flight ban, but they and other regulators consider its advice carefully when deciding where to fly. The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) is studying the situation, a spokeswoman said.
Struggle with conflict areas
It has been nearly five years since a Malaysian passenger airplane was shot down over Ukraine.
A missile brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, killing all its 298 passengers and crew. Investigators found that a missile was launched from territory controlled by pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.
The crash led to calls for better international methods for sharing information about dangerous conflict areas to prevent similar tragedies. But many industry experts say more improvements are still needed.
The issue was recently discussed at a conference of the International Air Transport Association in Seoul, the South Korean capital. Some carriers choose to fly over war-torn countries, while others do not. This was the case at the time of the MH17 crash.
In addition to Malaysia Airlines, Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines were also flying aircraft over eastern Ukraine. But British Airways and Air France had avoided the area.
Izham Ismail is the head of Malaysia Airlines. He told the media after the downing of MH17 led his company to approve new safety measures. “The wound is still here in the whole organization and we take safety very seriously,” he said.
Airlines are taking a more structured approach to analysing the risks and uncertainties, scaling up to a higher risk level at an earlier stage. Some airlines state that they now decide more quickly to refrain from overflying specific areas if no clear information relating to such areas is available.
The investigation of MH17 cannot be used to demonstrate directly that flying has become safer. It does show, however, that a range of measures have been implemented, and that States and airlines around the world are aware of the issue at stake. Stakeholders no longer assume that the airspace above a conflict zone is safe.
After the crash of flight MH17, IATA expanded its risk assessment and audit guidelines. Overflying conflict zones are now specifically adressed as possible risk and incorporated in the IATA prescribed management systems. IATA has also included the issue in a new manual on Security Management Systems, enabling airlines to incorporate that.
Every State manages its own airspace. States are sovereign in this respect, which means that they decide autonomously on allowing aircraft access to their airspace or impose restrictions on its use.
For instance, they can decide the available routes and minimum altitudes, or close their airspace altogether.
In the MH17 Crash report, the Dutch Safety Board observed that when a state is dealing with armed conflict within its territory, it may be difficult for that State to ensure the safety of its airspace.
This is still the case. Only rarely do States close their airspace due to armed conflict. As such, it is important for States to receive more stimuli and support in such situations in order for them to be able to take this responsibility.
Transparency on flight routes
It is important for airlines to be transparent about their chosen flight routes. In this way, they demonstrate that they devote adequate attention to the risks relating to overflying conflict zones. However, airlines publish little to no information about their chosen flight routes currently, and IATA has not taken an active role in establishing a form of accountability either.
Airlines have discretion to plan flight routes along airways they think are safe, but rely on governments to issue warnings if they deem airspace unsafe. The decision by some airlines to fly over war zones, while others avoid them, underscores the complexity flight routing presents for industry and governments