Airlines will push for neutral information about airspace over conflict zones at a high-level industry summit Tuesday as passengers fret over the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over Ukraine and the threat of rockets at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport.
The U.N.’s aviation agency, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), invited the heads of the airline industry, airports and the world's air traffic control networks to its headquarters in Montreal to discuss what needs to be changed to ensure airliners are flying in secure airspace.
Airlines want greater clarity over the quality of information provided by individual countries about their own airspace. Pilot unions agree, and last week called for international bodies to have greater influence, saying the current process for deciding flight routes is “not good enough” and creates “the illusion of safety.”
Caught in the middle are passengers, who have no way of knowing the exact routing of their flight until they are on board or in the air. The FAA temporarily banned U.S. flights at Ben Gurion last week while other global carriers continued to fly there, leaving customers confused – and prompting accusations that the decision was politicized.
"Airlines do not have CIA operatives working for them," an airline industry source told Reuters. "At the end of the day, airlines have to decide whether to fly or not based on accurate information. Yet some countries will never, ever say there is a problem with their airspace even if there really is a problem with their airspace. This does not make it easy for airlines."
Time and money
The MH17 disaster, which killed 298 people on July 17, is blamed on a surface-to-air missile fired at a busy air corridor between Europe and Asia that Ukrainian authorities had deemed safe despite the worsening conflict in which pro-Russian separatist militants had gained access to increasingly sophisticated weaponry.
It threw a spotlight on the seemingly arbitrary process for deciding plane routes. Flight plans are drawn up by airlines and pilots and submitted to air traffic controllers for approval. Ultimately, pilots fly the agreed routing – unless they receive or request adjustments from air traffic controllers while en route.
Time and money are key considerations. Longer routings mean longer flights and higher fuel bills – and, in turn, more expensive tickets.
ICAO has a limited role and cannot open or close airspace. Enhancing ICAO's role to give it the authority to tell airlines where to fly, or to tell its members what to do with their airspace, would test rules that date back to World War One peace agreements. The United States has already said it is not seeking changes to ICAO's guidelines.
Temporary restrictions, known as Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs) can be issued by airports and air traffic controllers. However, MH17 was brought down in an area not covered by the embargo and Israel’s equivalent of the FAA has not issued any NOTAMs about rockets at Ben Gurion despite an explicit threat from Palestinian militant group Hamas that it would target the facility.
Regulators in individual countries can issue NOTAMs, but these are only mandatory for "home" airlines. Last week, U.S. airlines including Delta, United and American were temporarily banned by the FAA from using Ben Gurion while other airlines including British Airways and El Al continued to fly. Hours after the FAA ban was lifted, an Air Canada Boeing 767 had to abort a landing at Ben Gurion because of rocket fire from Gaza in the area.
Joerg Handwerg, a board member at German pilots' union Vereinigung Cockpit, said a decision by Lufthansa and Air Berlin to continue flying to Ben Gurion seemed driven by political and economic factors rather than by security reasons. "We should not be flying to locations where shots are being fired," Handwerg told reporters on Monday. “The [Gaza] truce was only temporary and Israel's rocket defense system appeared unable to hold up all rockets.”
Airlines can choose to avoid conflict areas – but few discuss or publicize their routing decisions. On Monday, Emirates announced it would stop flying over Iraq to protect against the threat of militants on the ground. Australia's Qantas stopped flying over Ukraine several months ago and shifted its London-Dubai route 400 miles to the south.
Days after MH17 was shot down, Malaysia Airlines faced scrutiny when a flight from London to Kuala Lumpur overflew war-torn Syria after the closing of Ukrainian airspace, Flight Safety Australia reported. The airline cited ICAO clearance for the route and the Syrian Civil Aviation Authority said the airspace was not subject to restrictions, despite internal conflict in the country since 2011.
The Civil Air Navigation Services Organization, which is involved in Tuesday's meeting, said it is not pushing for a central body to provide oversight or issue advisories.
However, the ICAO could see an enhanced role for its global risk advisories that help airlines assess the risk posed by everything from war zones to volcanic eruptions.
Ultimately, governments may not be eager to share sensitive military intelligence, and singling out particular regions could anger some states. "Where ICAO has success is where they keep out of politics, as much as possible," David Mackenzie, a Canadian professor who has written a history of the U.N. agency, told Reuters.
Reuters contributed to this report.