FINN editor-in-chief Alan Peaford takes a look at the issues facing airlines, regulators and governments in the wake of the downing of Ukraine International Airlines flight 752 earlier this month

In a perfect world the day-to-day activities of commercial air transport would be beyond geopolitical issues and would enable ordinary citizens to go about their business for work or leisure purposes unhindered and without risk.

On January 8, an early morning Ukraine International Airlines (UIA) flight crashed shortly after taking off from the Iranian capital Tehran, killing all 176 passengers and crew members on board. After three days of denial – and mounting evidence – Iran admitted it had shot the Boeing plane down “unintentionally”. Indeed two air to ground missiles had been fired at the civilian aircraft.

In the intervening three days, the Tehran government removed the flight and voice data recorders (the so-called black boxes) and refused to share any data, particularly with the US or American organisations such as Boeing. The crash site itself was contaminated as potentially vital evidence was removed before trained investigators could secure and then analyse the cause of the tragedy. The crash site also had bulldozers levelling the earth and removing and destroying debris from the aircraft.

But there was video evidence (yes, the amateur cameraman has been arrested by the Iranian authorities) and UIA ground staff had visited the crash scene and identified shrapnel damage on the wrecked fuselage.

Two disaster locations covered by dark clouds of war

The delay before the admission has opened up wide discussions about the issues of international access to such catastrophic event. Of course this is nothing new. The incident of Malaysian Airlines MH17 flight which was shot down, ironically enough, in Ukraine, by Russian separatists, also saw difficulties for investigators to gain access of information to determine the cause.

The two incidents had one thing in common – the disaster locations were covered by the dark clouds of war. The first incident was between Ukraine and Russia, while the most recent occurred during rising tensions between Iran and the United States. There were strong emotions in the general press. My colleague Martin Rivers went further in a piece he wrote for the UK’s Guardian newspaper. “Blame for flight 752 does not lie solely with those who downed the plane; it also lies with those who put it in harm’s way,” he wrote.

No ICAO guidance

Many other stood up to criticise ICAO – the UN body that oversees aviation on behalf of member states and promotes safety and compliance by global carriers, and regulators.

“Airlines operating in the region were fully aware that their flight paths crossed a potential conflict zone. Yet they received no guidance from ICAO,” Rivers said. “Risk assessments were, instead, made by individual companies and countries – just as they had been before the MH17 disaster. Some Middle Eastern carriers had suspended flights to Baghdad prior to the missile barrage. Some Asian and European ones diverted flights around Iranian airspace. Shortly after the assault, the US banned its airlines from the region. But many others kept to schedule.”

But ICAO could do nothing. Again politics had intervened with individual states not wanting to delegate responsibility for their own airspace to any overseas body – including the UN. The Montreal-based authority has defended itself rigorously.

“Under the Convention on International Civil Aviation it is ICAO Member States which are responsible for the proper coordination and publication of activities hazardous to civilian aviation arising in their territories,” ICAO said while icily pointing out that “publication by national authorities should be sufficiently far in advance of any hazard to allow all international civil aircraft to plan their routes clear of such areas.”

Aircraft in ‘wrong place at wrong time’

The rising tension between Iran and the USA was hardly state secrets. The US had assassinated Iran’s most senior military commander, Qassem Suleimani and the country vowed retribution despite warnings from US president Donald Trump that any Iranian response might provoke a “disproportionate” US strike. Iran’s ballistic missile attack on a US base followed – and Iran waited for the US strike. It didn’t come but the UIA aircraft did, happening to be at the wrong place at the wrong time and jumpy Iranian guards made the tragically wrong decision.

There are organisations that monitor tensions 24/7. Osprey is one such provider that every day produces analysis and background to events all over the world. The Middle East is frequently featured. High risks to aircraft in the sky or crews on the ground are covered.

Protests around an airport or heightened risk of missile attacks – such as in airspace around southern Saudi Arabia and Yemen, or Iraq – are there to assist airlines make their decision. And because they happen nearly every day it is a tough decision that airlines have to make to decide whether a nation’s capital – such as Tehran – is a risk or not.

Iran reluctant to hand over data recorders

For example, Osprey’s analysis indicates Saudi Arabia has shot down over 145 Houthi-launched surface-to-surface missiles (SSM) and drones over its territory since the start of 2018, including seven over Riyadh as well as two over Mecca Province and one over Yanbu, located deep within the interior of the country. Each day hundreds of airlines cross or serve airports in Saudi Arabia.

The morning of the UIA tragedy, dozens of carriers flew in the Tehran area without problem. But there are more issues. The reluctance to hand over the data recorders goes against all the rules. Iran does not have the equipment or the expertise to recover or assess the data and so far, refuses to hand over the recorders to neutral investigators such as France.

State interference in the operations of civil air transport is a problem for the whole industry. Whether it be airspace protectionism that adds to carbon emissions; taxation on operations or fuel or agreements on markets an industry that should be high above all other transportation systems – in all senses – instead is hampered. The tragedy in Tehran should not be allowed to happen again. Governments cause the problems – and they could fix them.

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