Daily Maverick

Airlines to push for independent guidance on airspace safety after Ukraine crash

Global airlines will push to get "neutral information" on whether to use or avoid airspace over conflict zones at Tuesday's meeting of the U.N. aviation agency and other airline bodies, a European-based airline industry source said. By Allison Lampert and Allison Martell for Reuters.

The U.N. agency, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), has invited the heads of the airline industry, airports and the world’s air traffic control networks to the Montreal meeting to discuss what needs to be changed to ensure that airliners are flying in secure airspace after the downing of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine on July 17 took 298 lives.

The meeting is likely to hear calls for wider international powers to intervene when a country fails to monitor threats to its airspace. The Malaysia Airlines crash occurred after Ukraine left open air corridors that lay within the range of the missile blamed for destroying the jet.

Airlines, represented by International Air Transport Association, will tell the meeting they urgently need improved access to “neutral information based on objective criteria,” the industry source said.

“Airlines do not have CIA operatives working for them,” said the source who spoke on condition of anonymity. “At the end of the day, airlines have to decide whether to fly or not based on accurate information.

“Yet some countries will never, ever say there is a problem with their airspace even if there really is a problem with their airspace. This does not make it easy for airlines.”

On Monday, Emirates Airline announced it would stop flying over Iraq to protect against the threat of militants on the ground.

ICAO currently has a limited role and cannot open or close airspace. It issued an advisory this year, warning of a jurisdictional risk posed by two sets of air traffic controllers directing traffic over the Crimea region.

Enhancing ICAO’s role to give it the authority to tell airlines where to fly, or to tell its members what to do with their airspace, would test rules that dates back to World War One peace agreements and are enshrined in ICAO’s founding charter.

It would also require the agency to obtain sensitive information from its member states about their internal military and political affairs.

Diplomats say any attempt to tamper with the sovereignty of airspace could set broader precedents that make quick results unlikely. The United States has already said it is not seeking changes to ICAO’s guidelines.

The Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation, involved in Tuesday’s meeting, has also said it is not pushing for a central body to provide oversight or issue advisories.


While ICAO is unlikely to gain broad regulatory powers, some U.N. agency insiders and industry experts said the agency could help keep country regulators better informed.

It already publishes a Global Risk Context Statement, which describes risks to airliners in broad terms. The document highlights the risk of shoulder-mounted missiles, for example. But it does not say where in the world these risks are most severe, information of crucial interest to airlines.

One council representative raised the possibility of expanding the Risk Context Statement to include more details about regional conflicts.

“Nonbinding advisories may be possible,” said another source familiar with ICAO. “Airlines want ICAO’s involvement as ICAO may have better access to government sources of security intelligence, and thus could help make better information available to airlines.”

But governments may not be eager to share sensitive military intelligence, and singling out particular regions could anger some states.

“Where ICAO has success is where they keep out of politics, as much as possible,” said David Mackenzie, a Canadian professor who has written a history of the U.N. agency.

Even if there is a consensus in favor of expanding ICAO’s role in some way, it may not last.

“When there are challenges, people want ICAO to get involved,” said a second council representative. “But when we are further away from problems, the states would like ICAO to go away.” DM

Photo: People carry a stretcher with a bodybag past a debris of Boeing 777 Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 airplane, which crashed during flying over the eastern Ukraine region, at the crash site near Donetsk, Ukraine, 19 July 2014.  EPA/ANASTASIA VLASOVA EPA/ANASTASIA VLASOVA

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