Civil aviation: More info on combat zones is key

An armed pro-Russian separatist stands on part of the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines flight MH-17 after it crashed near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region, July 17, 2014. REUTERS

The destruction of a Malaysia Airlines jet over Ukraine earlier this month, with the accompanying loss of nearly 300 lives, has prompted the world's civil aviation authorities to call for the release of better information regarding flight paths over conflict territories.

On Tuesday, at a meeting in its Montreal headquarters, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), joined by several other air transport groups, condemned the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH 17, and said the incident "has raised troubling concerns with respect to civilian aircraft operating to, from and over conflict zones."

An ICAO statement said the organization's member states recognize the need to coordinate the information and intelligence required to keep their passengers and crews safe.

They also acknowledged, however, the complex and "politically sensitive" nature of trying to have civil aviation coordinate with national security and intelligence organizations "to ensure the right information reaches the right people at the right time."

Industry observers say a big part of the problem is some nations' reluctance to make public any issues they deem sensitive.

"At the end of the day, airlines have to decide whether to fly or not based on accurate information," an industry source, who asked not to be identified, told Reuters.

"Yet some countries will never, ever say there is a problem with their airspace," the source continued, "even if there really is a problem with their airspace. This does not make it easy for airlines."

The international insurance industry is also weighing in on the issue.

According to the Financial Times, airline insurers expect their annual losses this year to surpass $2 billion, making 2014 the most expensive year since the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001.

The newspaper also reports some insurance companies are now demanding that airlines provide them with exact flight paths, while "considering withdrawing completely from providing certain types of cover for flights over hotspots in the Middle East and parts of Africa."

And there are concerns commercial passenger jets could find themselves flying into trouble elsewhere.

"It's a fairly rare thing for this to happen, but maybe we will see a bit more going forward," said Andrew Goetz, a professor and faculty member at the University of Denver's Intermodal Transportation Institute.

He pointed to ongoing airspace disputes between China and Japan over several islands both countries claim as another possible flash point. "This may be something where we're going to see more of these airspace conflicts starting to impinge on commercial airline activities," Goetz added.

And despite the recent series of air tragedies -- the Malaysia Airlines plane shot down, followed shortly afterward by deadly passenger jet crashes in Taiwan and Mali -- industry officials and organizations note air travel has become safer in recent years, even as the number of passengers keeps growing.

Recent analysis by the Associated Press found that since 2000, there have been fewer than three fatalities per 10 million air passengers. At the same time, 3.1 billion passengers flew last year, or twice the total of people who traveled by commercial jet in 1999.

The ICAO is planning a high-level meeting of all 191 member states next February to ensure "the safety and security of the global air transport system and its users."

  • Bruce Kennedy

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