Commercial aviation at a crossroads?

30 Jul 2014 by Tamsin Cocks

Members of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) met yesterday in Montreal to discuss the safety loopholes identified after Malaysian Airlines (MAS) Flight MH17 was shot down in war-stricken Ukrainian airspace, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew on board.

The ICAO concluded it would form a high-level task force composed of state and industry experts to discuss the best way to collect and distribute information about potential threats to aircraft. The necessity of such an undertaking became apparent when fingers were being pointed left and right in the aftermath of MH17 as to which party should be held responsible for having allowed MH17 to fly over airspace known to be infiltrated by ground-to-air missile attacks. The composition of the new task force is not expected to be announced until next week.

The ICAO further decided it would convene a high-level safety conference with all 191 of the United Nations body’s member states in February. The wheels of aviation bureaucracy turn infinitely slowly, one may think, given the time lapse between now and February.

Currently, the ultimate authority for declaring whether airspace is considered safe is its respective government. In the case of MH17, this clearly would have been the government of Ukraine. And indeed it did declare MH17’s flight path over its sovereign airspace safe when other aviation regulators such as the US’ FAA had banned its airlines from flying over the territory months earlier.

“There are no excuses. Even sensitive information can be sanitized in a way that ensures airlines get essential and actionable information without compromising methods or sources,” said International Air Transport Association (IATA) President Tony Tyler, who was at the helm of the Montreal talks.

Several recent incidents have highlighted the problematic nature of relying solely on the word of states that receive lucrative overflight fees from aircraft passing through their airspace. 

Tyler admitted to security loopholes in the current system that need to be addressed. Yet, the former Cathay Pacific CEO reiterated confidence in the industry, saying it was by far the safest mass transit system.

“The system is not broken. It works extremely well in the vast majority of cases. […] So the challenge is to close the specific gap or gaps that allowed this tragedy to happen,” Tyler said.

All major airlines have avoided flying over zones of war and conflict since the MH17 tragedy.

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Dominic Sebastian Lalk


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