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MH17: ICAO task force pursues accurate threat analysis

ICAO is establishing a task force which aims to examine ways to reinforce the collection of accurate information about conflict zones, and improve their risk assessment during route planning.

The senior-level task force – which government and industry representatives will be invited to join – is being set up in the wake of the loss of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, possibly after a missile strike, over Ukraine.

ICAO secretary general Raymond Benjamin, speaking during a briefing in Montreal, said the destruction of MH17 was “unacceptable” and had raised “troubling concerns” about operating over regions caught up in armed conflict.

He acknowledges that the matter is “highly complex” and “politically sensitive”, but says that ICAO has an “important role to play” in ensuring that “the right information reaches the right people at the right time”.

While the pursuit of accurate information, on which to base operational decisions on flight safety, is a near-term objective, ICAO has also highlighted a need for better international control over the design and deployment of anti-aircraft weapons.

IATA director general Tony Tyler, also present at the briefing, said the loss of the Boeing 777 on 17 July had “exposed a gap in the system”.

Tyler says that crucial decision-making information must be authoritative, accessible and unequivocal. Even information which might be considered sensitive can be “sanitised”, he says, in a manner which will ensure airlines can act effectively.

Neither ICAO nor IATA could give immediate suggestions on ways to achieve the desired gathering and dissemination of information, deferring this responsibility to the task force.

Tyler adds that MH17 has demonstrated that “powerful anti-aircraft weaponry is in the hands of non-state entities”, and that there is little in terms of international conventions to address the associated risks. But he concedes that this is a longer-term issue.

MH17 had been operating in a section of open and approved airspace situated above a zone of closed airspace.

Keeping airspace open for the passage of commercial traffic maintains a revenue stream of air navigation fees but Tyler rejects the notion that this creates a conflict of interests for governments.

“I’m sure that no country, no civilised person, would put a few dollars ahead of the value of human lives,” he says.

ICAO expects the task force would be able to submit an initial report within six to eight weeks. Its findings will be presented to the ICAO Council. The organisation will also host a high-level safety conference in February 2015.

Tyler insists that there is no systemic failing and stresses a “need to keep a sense of perspective”.

“Regulations often have unintended consequences,” says Tyler. “The current system has been proven to work. We don’t need to throw away 100 years of good experience.

“We’ve identified a gap. Let’s close that gap but not completely rewrite the rules on how things are done.”

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