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  • OPINION: Industry must learn from MAS tragedies

OPINION: Industry must learn from MAS tragedies

Hugh Dunleavy is commercial director at Malaysia Airlines

Malaysia Airlines has been impacted by two significant events in 2014. The first was the unexplained disappearance of flight MH370 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on 8 March, and the second was the shooting down of MH17 over Ukraine on 17 July.

The first incident must trigger the aviation industry to enhance flight-tracking equipment installed on all commercial aircraft so that even if one disappears from air traffic control radar systems, there is a separate and independent mechanism to allow the airline to be able to track the exact location of the aircraft.

This will require collaboration across the airline industry and ICAO. More specifically, IATA should play a leadership role to ensure that the airline industry does not end up with a multitude of solutions all using different technologies that are incompatible across geographic regions.

Work on robust solutions is under way. By the end of 2014, the first implementations should be ready and testing can take place to prove the solution in an operational environment. MAS plans to be one of the first airlines to install such capabilities, and we will actively participate in ICAO and IATA activities relating to aircraft-tracking capabilities.

In parallel, MAS is collaborating fully with the Malaysian government authorities participating with Australian and Chinese search agencies in the continuing search for the missing aircraft in the South Indian Ocean. The search could take some considerable time as this region is one of the least explored and charted areas of the planet.

The shooting-down of MH17 over Ukraine is tragic, but unfortunately this is not the first such event in history. The impact of MH17 is profound in that although the aircraft was flying over a “ground war zone”, the aircraft was using a flight corridor specified as “safe” by both ICAO and European air traffic control.

Obviously, the designation of the flight corridor as safe was not an accurate reflection of the actual dangers civil aircraft faced when operating above what was understood to be a ground-level war zone. It is therefore appropriate for ICAO and IATA to take a closer look at the criteria used to identify flight corridors for use by civilian commercial aircraft.

ICAO is reviewing the criteria and information sources used in assessing the use of flight corridors, and this is welcomed by the industry. However, in addition, it is important to ask what else can be done at the government level to ensure that civilian aircraft operating in designated flight corridors are not targeted by military/rebel forces using sophisticated weapon systems capable of the total destruction of an aircraft and all its passengers.

Compounding the tragedy was the inability of the investigation and recovery teams to gain access to the crash site, secure the area from tampering and retrieve the bodies of the passengers. The fact that the aircraft was brought down by a sophisticated missile system meant that the crash site was in fact a crime scene and strict controls should have been immediately implemented to prevent unauthorised access. This should be a minimum level of expectation for any civilised country.

Unfortunately, grieving family members had to endure unnecessary additional stress knowing that their loved ones were still lying in an open field for days and weeks after the crash. Evidence that the passengers’ belongings were being looted further worsened the situation.

This is not only a tragedy for the passengers on board MH17 – it is a tragedy that in a modern connected world, opposing forces in Ukraine could not set aside their differences for a period of time and exhibit sufficient human decency to allow the investigators access to the site.

The world should consider this behaviour as a war crime and prosecute those involved. This, however, is highly unlikely to happen. Innocent civilians were caught up in a war that they knew very little about but which ultimately took their lives in a senseless act of mindless aggression against a civilian passenger aircraft.

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