MH17: who is to blame?

The shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 on 17th July was a tragedy. Naturally, if it is indeed proven that an anti-aircraft missile brought the aircraft down, those who fired the shot bear responsibility. However, the aviation industry must also ask itself the question as to whether it could have taken action to ensure that commercial flights did not operate over eastern Ukraine. Lucy Rawlings investigates the role of the airline, the State and international bodies, such as ICAO, EASA and Eurocontrol, in determining when aircraft should not operate over conflict zones. And, in conclusion, she considers some of the other volatile areas of the world where it may well be advisable to classify air space as being ‘no-fly zones’.

Civil aviation is frequently faced with new threats which aviation authorities have to deal with, such as liquid explosives, or the latest, IEDs potentially concealed within switched off mobile phones or other electronic devices. Once these threats have been identified, national and international agencies will respond by creating rules and setting restrictions for passengers worldwide. However, until now, it appears that ground based threats have been overlooked, and the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 on 17th July has raised new concerns about who in the global aviation sphere should be held responsible for safeguarding commercial flights against surface-to-air missiles.

The threat of commercial aircraft being struck by ground based anti-aircraft missiles over conflict zones has always been there. However, we would generally expect such long-range missiles to be controlled by national governments. Any deliberate attack on an aircraft could therefore be viewed as an act of war and so would be avoided. Aviation authorities (and others) have also believed that these anti-aircraft missiles could not be used against commercial planes flying at 30,000ft and above. However, since flight MH17 was cruising at 33,000ft, airlines, aviation regulators, and governments have been forced to re-think what can be done to safeguard civilian flights whose paths cross over conflict zones.

In order to decide who, if indeed it should be the obligation of one particular aviation sector, will be responsible for the closing off of airspace over conflict zones, we must first take into account the role and expectations we have of our governments, airlines, and aviation regulators.

At present, restrictions on airspace are set by the individual nations in which the conflict is taking place and airlines are given security briefings by intelligence services in their national country. Individual airlines then make their own decisions based on the information they receive, as to whether or not they should alter their routes. This can be problematic, however, as different carriers may interpret the information in different ways, and some may perceive a greater risk than others. It also raises the issue of airlines from different nations receiving different degrees of information, and could, for example, result in an airline from one nation obtaining certain vital security information, and another not, leading to the airline from the less-informed nation putting itself at a higher risk.

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