Dutch investigators are recommending that the country’s government considers extending its flight-safety remit to include prohibiting Dutch carriers flying through foreign airspace affected by conflict.

Seven years after Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine – and 18 months after the similar missile attack on Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 in Iran – the Dutch Safety Board has carried out a follow-up probe into the safety of flight routes, intended to provide insight into countries’ management of conflict zone risks to commercial aircraft.

It says the majority of states with conflicts on, or near, their territory still do not close or restrict their airspace – even though such a precaution would offer the best protection. Iranian airspace remained open despite an escalating conflict with the USA in January 2020, just before the destruction of PS752.

“Although in theory airspace management in conflict zones is an effective safety barrier, in practice this is not the case,” says the Dutch Safety Board analysis. “As a consequence, airlines cannot assume that open airspace over a conflict zone is safe.”

UIA 737 winglet debris-c-Iran CAO

Source: Iran Civil Aviation Organisation

Debris from Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 after it was shot down in Iran

While airlines are able to undertake their own risk assessments of affected airspace, with the benefit of shared threat information from governments, the analysis says governments can take greater responsibility by issuing recommendations to carriers or even imposing restrictions.

But the Safety Board says the Dutch government’s policy is neither to issue recommendations nor put prohibitions in place.

“No legal basis has been created in the Netherlands to impose a flight prohibition on Dutch airlines in foreign airspace,” it adds, contrasting this approach with those of other states – among them France, Germany, the UK, USA and Canada.

“Because the recommendations and flight prohibitions from these states are published, their outreach is not limited to the airlines in their own state.”

Tensions with Iran had been raised for several days after an attack on a senior Iranian military figure in Iraq on 2 January last year.

While the presence of surface-to-air missiles in the region were identified as risk factors, says the Safety Board, they were not considered a reason for airlines to stop flying in the area.

Dutch carriers KLM and Transavia had concluded that operations over Iraq and the eastern part of Iran could continue, until an Iranian missile attack on US bases in Iraq on 7 January forced a reassessment. The carriers decided to stop flying in the area.

Other airlines continued to operate, including Ukraine International whose flight PS752 was subsequently destroyed by a surface-to-air weapon.

“Although various states were in a position to advise against overflying Iran when the conflict in that state escalated, until the moment when Iran launched the [missile attack on Iraq], not a single state had issued either a recommendation to avoid overflying Iran, or a flight prohibition for Iranian airspace,” the Safety Board claims.

Its analysis recommends that the Dutch government should not only provide conflict information to airlines, but also issue advice and – as the “ultimate remedy” – impose prohibitions on Dutch carriers to prevent them flying through affected foreign airspace.

But the Safety Board is also urging the government to take the initiative at international level to develop proposals for a “stricter definition” of countries’ responsibilities regarding airspace management, “so that it is clear in which cases the airspace should be closed”.

It adds that the government should encourage the development of risk-assessment methods based on the “precautionary principle” for civil aviation operations near conflict zones. Governments should work out, with the support of airlines, how to identify possible “catastrophic scenarios” in the event of an escalating conflict, taking into account uncertainties in analysis and decision-making.