Aviation Has No Good Ways To Prevent Another Missile Strike On A Commercial Aircraft
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For the 346 people who died in two crashes on Boeing 737 MAX aircraft, there are Congressional hearings, thousands of pages of documentation, and avionics calculations being refined to decimal points in order to prevent the aircraft from ever repeating the problem. Yet commercial aviation has no good answers in response to the 474 people who died when missiles destroyed Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 last week and Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in 2014.
“No effort should be spared to make sure that such a tragedy is never repeated,” aviation’s representative body IATA said of PS752. On the first anniversary of MH17, IATA wanted to ensure “civilian airliners will never again be brought down by weapons of war.”
So “never again” became again.
The tragedy of PS752 is dumbfounding for many: its live flightpath was visible to anyone with an internet connection to the free Flightradar24 tracking service.
There are views that given the higher probability of missile activity on the day PS752 was shot down, Iran should have at least issued a warning and pre-emptively closed its airspace. If it did not, the argument continues, other countries or individual airlines should have known not to fly in. Aviation is reluctant to discuss that.
“The pilots did not know anything and they could not know, because there were no warnings,” Ukraine International Airlines president Yevhen Dykhne said. “The airport was working as usual. Knowing about who shoots where is not the business of civilian pilots.”
IATA also largely places responsibility on authorities. “Helping airlines assess potential dangers is the moral responsibility of governments around the globe,” IATA said after MH17. IATA encouraged its government counterpart, the UN-backed ICAO, to establish a database so airlines could share safety assessments. ICAO did but then closed it after governments did not want other parties assessing their airspace, according to Reuters.
The Dutch Safety Board’s investigation into MH17 recommended that besides merely sharing information, threat assessment distribution needed to be more timely while regulators should oversee how their airlines make judgments.
Some safety information is already evident or shared, but airline outcomes diverge. After PS752 crashed, the Lufthansa Group said its airlines would stop flying to Tehran until at least January 20.
Turkish Airlines, Emirates and Qatar Airways continue to fly to Tehran. Qatar Airways does what few other airlines do: fly through Syrian airspace. Logistically, Syrian airspace is convenient since Qatar continues to have a blockade imposed on it that it prevents it from using airspace of countries like Saudi Arabia, which could be an easy alternate to overflying Syria. CEO Akbar Al Baker has denied Qatar would do anything unsafe.
Israel’s airlines have gone to the extreme. National carrier El Al and small operators Arkia and Israir are the only known commercial airlines to have outfitted their aircraft with an anti-aircraft missile system. Besides cost and payload implications, there are murky international views on the safety of such systems.
Threat assessment inconsistency has been highlighted by the European Cockpit Association, which represents pilots in Europe. ECA president Dirk Polloczek noted the United Kingdom in 2017 prohibited personal electronic devices on flights from six countries, mostly in the Middle East. This was done on unspecified safety grounds, yet other European countries did not replicate the ban.
The threats being assessed are changing. The long standing threat scenario was thought to be terrorists with shoulder-fired missiles. Instead, MH17 was downed by a missile big enough it needed its own launch vehicle. The Iranian government accepted its military, and not a rogue operative, was responsible for PS752.
The history of aircraft being shot down unfortunately reaches back further, including the United States Navy shooting down Iran Air flight 655 in 1988. Thirty years later, aviation safety has remarkably improved, but has not stopped missiles from destroying innocent civilian aircraft. Existing protocols, expectations and a mentality of “do the right thing” have failed passengers.
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