Airlines have been flying over volatile areas and conflict zones for many years without incident however the downing of MH17 means the airline industry will need to undertake a whole new re-think regarding how it selects safe routes and the way in which decisions are made to ensure passenger safety.
The prime responsibility lies with those who fired the missile and those who armed poorly trained people who should never have their hands on such sophisticated weapons. It is a wonder though, in a week where other aircraft had been shot down in the same area in the days prior, that the systems had still allowed commercial civilian airliners to fly over this airspace.
The following opinion piece was written by the Commercial Director of Malaysian Airlines and makes some valid points regarding the way in which routes are chosen and the changes that may be needed.
The forcing down of Flight MH17 by what is widely believed to have been a missile has had an unprecedented impact on the aviation industry.
It could have been any one of several well-known airlines operating in the same flight corridor that day.
For too long, airlines have been shouldering the responsibility for making decisions about what constitutes a safe flight path, over areas in political turmoil around the world. We are not intelligence agencies, but airlines, charged with carrying passengers in comfort between destinations.
Against the backdrop of areas with increasingly volatile political situations, such as Ukraine and Gaza, we as an industry must act now to create a system of approval that guarantees safe air passage for all commercial airlines.
As things stand, airlines are ultimately responsible for making a decision on whether or not to take a particular flight path.
When planning routes for our aircraft, Malaysia Airlines uses the best possible intelligence from the relevant third-party authorities to determine their safety and suitability. We consult with relevant governments, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and Eurocontrol, the air navigation service provider that determines civil aircraft flight paths over European airspace.
All factors are considered when making these decisions, with the safety of passengers and crew being the utmost priority.
Malaysia Airlines’ flight operations team use this intelligence, data and advice to make an informed decision on the safety of the proposed route for every one of its aircraft.
Only if a route is deemed completely safe by the authorities will Malaysia Airlines proceed with its flight plan.
MH17 was in airspace approved by ICAO. Its flight plan was approved by the Ukrainian authorities, as well as Eurocontrol. Yet still it was brought down, it seems, by a missile.
This tragedy has taught us that despite following the guidelines and advice set out by the governing bodies, the skies above certain territories are simply not safe.
MH17 has shown us that airlines can no longer rely on existing industry bodies for this information.
No longer should airlines bear the responsibility of deeming flight paths safe or unsafe. We are businesses, not agencies. And it is not reasonable for us to assess all of the issues going on in all of the regions in the world, and determine a safe flight path.
For the sake of passenger and crew safety we need to insist on a higher level of authority. Hundreds of flights a day continue to fly over what are generally considered to be unsafe parts of the world, but which nevertheless have the clearance of authorities.
Countries such as Iraq, Iran, Syria and Afghanistan all accommodate commercial air traffic.
Individual airlines should not be arriving at decisions – independently of one another – to determine whether the skies above these volatile regions are safe.
How can airlines be expected to know what is happening on the ground when evidently in some cases neither do governments? The airline industry should not be held accountable for factors that are beyond our control.
Change is needed now.
The fact that a civilian aircraft was shot out of the sky over what was designated a safe flight corridor is proof that we have to take a much closer look and redefine what we consider safe flight corridors. I believe the best way to do this is for the airlines, IATA and ICAO, to get together and review existing processes and set more stringent standards about what they consider to be safe flight corridors. Ultimately, we need one body to be the arbiter of where we can fly. Airlines such as ours should be left to focus on the quality of our product in the air, not on the air corridor we fly in, which should be guaranteed as safe passage.
We have to act together as an industry.