This article first appeared as a Comment in the 5 August issue of Flight International
In the wake of flight MH17’s loss over eastern Ukraine, it is right that ICAO has called a high-level meeting to examine what, if anything, could be done to mitigate risks to commercial air transport in conflict zones.
It not clear, however, that any workable mitigations are available – apart from the obvious tactic of avoiding airspace over all conflict zones, however minor the conflict may be. That remedy is open to airlines anyway – risk management is their responsibility.
The idea of being compelled to avoid all airspace subject to any form of dispute is anathema to ICAO. All the treaties of which it is custodian and curator are about ensuring freedom of the skies for travel and trade – just as its maritime equivalent the IMO guards the freedom of the oceans for shipping. So, not only does ICAO see the closure of airspace as undesirable, but as a United Nations agency it cannot order airlines not to use specific airspace – it can only provide advice. Only states have the right close their own airspace.
At present, airlines have a system for airspace risk assessment. Information about conflicts is available not only via the media, but through NOTAMs, home governments, the military, embassies and regional offices of IATA.
But would a centralised system be any more reliable? Is there any intrinsic benefit from every airline having access to the same intelligence-based advice? It may be a tidy idea, but singing from the same hymn sheet is not good if it is the wrong hymn. Also, who would run a central agency for airspace safety advice? ICAO would be the obvious answer in terms of reliability, independence and aviation expertise, but such a task is diametrically opposed to its raison d’etre – and it is not an expert in international or internal conflicts.
Finally, ICAO would have to depend completely upon reliable, consistent intelligence feeds from all over the world – which many nations might not be happy to supply – and also upon having the expertise to make a judgement airlines would trust.
Setting up a scale of four airspace risk categories from zero to high risk might make passengers feel better informed, but it is not the passenger’s decision, it is the airline’s.
Also under consideration is a treaty to control the production, use and ownership of missiles, just as there are treaties banning biological weapons.
There is certainly no guaranteed outcome for that proposal – and if there were it would take years.