AvLaw International Chairman Ron Bartsch, a former head of safety at Qantas, has raised the issue of whether Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 should have been flying over eastern Ukraine, given the conflict with Russia and closure of airspace below 32,000ft.
“I think one of the key lessons to learn from MH17 is that, whilst bodies like the International Air Transport Association (IATA) issue advisories and warnings to airlines around the world, it remains the responsibility of individual airlines to continually monitor and assess the risks on their routes,” Mr Bartsch said.
Mr Bartsch said there had been instances, such as when there was a volcano eruption in Chile, when Australian airlines had chosen not to fly even though authorities had declared the airspace safe.
“You can use the analogy of a police officer at a dangerous intersection. Police won’t tell you when to cross the road and when not to,” he said. “Individual airlines need to make an assessment of dangerous flight routes, but to do so effectively, they need the information.”
European air traffic control group Eurocontrol said Ukrainian authorities had closed the airspace from the ground level to 32,000 feet but the airspace at 33,000 feet, where MH17 was flying at the time it was shot down, had remained open.
“Some of the ground-to-air missiles being used in this conflict have ceiling limits above 70,000ft.”
“You’ve got to ask yourself, if it’s considered unsafe to fly over a particular region at 32,000ft, is it safe to do so at 33,000ft?”
“A number of different circumstances, such as engine failure or cabin depressurisation, could have forced the crew to descend below the 32,000ft minimum altitude set on the flight path MH17 was tracking.”
Mr Bartsch has proposed the development of a system of categorisation similar to that used for cyclones to give airlines an improved ability to assess risks associated with conflict zones.
“If IATA were charged with the responsibility of making that assessment, it could be very much like a travel advisory.’’
“Sometimes if a few airlines are doing it or even the majority of airlines are doing it, an airline may be drawn into a false sense of comfort, if you like, to think ‘if it is good enough for them, it is good enough for us’.”
“An independent risk rating system developed by a global authority has the potential to eliminate subjectivity from such assessments.”
John Dawson, Partner at Sydney based Carneys Lawyers, said “With the increasing number of hotspots around the globe, a risk rating system like the type proposed by Mr Bartsch, would be an invaluable tool to assist airlines in making day to day decisions concerning flight planning near conflict zones.”