Beyond the gruesome details of the missile strike that took down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, killing 298 people, lies a scandal: Why were 160 commercial flights flying over the eastern Ukraine on that day?
The Dutch investigators who delivered an exemplary report on the disaster reveal an extraordinary failure by the world’s airline industry to either understand or respond to the kind of warfare now raging beneath some of the busiest international air corridors. In their words:
“Not a single state or international organization explicitly warned of any risks to civil aviation and not a single state prohibited its airlines from using the airspace over the area or imposed other restrictions.”
Even though several military aircraft had been shot down over Ukraine in the weeks before the Boeing 777 was destroyed by a Russian surface-to-air missile, the main corridor used for flights between Europe, the Middle East, and Asia was still being used as though it was perfectly safe. (As the most direct route it saved both time and fuel costs.)
Those downings of military aircraft had been made by shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles called man-portable air defense systems, MANPADS. These weapons are considered to be effective only at altitudes below 10,000 feet—although one of the hits was made at 12,000 feet.
But three days before the catastrophe, an Ukranian Antonov An 26 transport was flying at 20,000 feet when it was destroyed by a missile, killing the two pilots. As the Dutch report says, this must have been as a result of someone using a more powerful ground-to-air weapon system than a MANPAD.
The Ukrainians had said that no commercial airplanes should fly over the conflict zone below 26,000 feet, but then changed that to 32,000 feet before the fateful day.
Flight MH17 was flying at 33,000 feet when it was hit.
The picture given by the Dutch of the apparent carelessness of the airlines using the route is damning.
“Operators should take greater account of uncertainties and risk-increasing factors…the current regulations do not stipulate that operators shall assess the risks involved in overflying conflict areas. Operators should gather information to be able to perform an adequate risk assessment.”
They urge both regulators and airlines to build a far more sophisticated data bank of the weapons being deployed in conflict zones like Syria, Iraq, the Sinai and Afghanistan, using not only open sources but national intelligence agencies.
“The aviation world should take more account of the changing world within which it operates…these conflicts are more disorderly and less predictable than ‘traditional’ wars between states. The aviation sector should take urgent measures to identify, assess and manage the risks associated with flying over conflict zones more effectively.”
That advice is aimed particularly at two global bodies responsible for commercial aviation, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA)—neither noted for nimble footwork in the face of crises.
In fact the alarming truth is that when it comes to international airline safety nobody is in charge—or, as the Dutch report says, “The system of responsibilities for civil aviation safety is not conclusive.”
Another disgraceful detail is calmly delivered in the report—the fact that the Russians failed to hand over to the Dutch investigators their radar records for the day of the disaster.
The investigators requested both primary and secondary radar records. Primary radar would show the course flown by the 777 and secondary radar would have more detail, like altitude and, of course, the point of impact with a missile. All nations are required by international agreement to supply this data in both its raw form and in “processed” form where it has more finite details.
The Russians told the investigators that since the missile hit the jet in Ukranian, not Russian airspace, they were under no obligation to provide it, and that they no longer had it, even though all radar records are required to be saved for 30 days. The ICAO makes no allowance for exceptions based on which country’s airspace is involved and said that no request for such an exception had ever been made by Russia.
As a result, no actual radar record of the impact of missile and airplane exists. And, therefore, no precise fix on where it was launched from and who launched it, offering Russia’s forces on the ground plausible deniability.