UN, civil aviation partners set up task force to reduce risks of flying over conflict zones

Aircraft on runway. Photo: World Bank/Arne Hoel (file)

31 July 2014 – In the wake of the recent downing of a passenger plane over eastern Ukraine, the United Nations and its partners have set up a task force to reduce the risks of civilian planes flying over conflict areas and ensure that the “right information reaches the right people at the right time.”

The decision came at a special meeting convened earlier this week in Montreal, Canada by the UN International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), along with the International Air Transport Association (IATA), Airports Council International (ACI) and the Civil Air Navigation Services Organization (CANSO).

The meeting was triggered by the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine on 17 July as it was traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, resulting in the death of 298 passengers.

“The downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 is unacceptable. Our organizations wish to convey our deepest condolences to the families of the passengers and crew who lost their lives in this tragic event,” the participants said in a joint statement issued after Tuesday’s meeting.

“While aviation is the safest form of transport, the MH17 incident has raised troubling concerns with respect to civilian aircraft operating to, from and over conflict zones.”

The meeting stressed the need for accurate and timely information and intelligence that might affect the safety of passengers and crew, while recognizing that this is a “highly complex and politically sensitive” endeavour that involves not only civil aviation regulations and procedures but also national security and intelligence gathering activities.

The task force, composed of State and industry experts, will address the civil aviation and national security aspects of the challenge of ensuring that the “right information reaches the right people at the right time,” according to the statement.

It was also decided at the meeting that ICAO will convene a high-level safety conference with all of its 191 member countries in February 2015. In addition, the industry has called for ICAO to address fail-safe channels for essential threat information to be made available to civil aviation authorities and industry.

A UN specialized agency that was created in 1944, ICAO works with the 191 signatory States of the Convention on International Civil Aviation and global industry and aviation groups to develop international Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs) which are then used by States when they develop their legally-binding national civil aviation regulations.

Working in collaboration with States, the agency has set over 10,000 standards, covering issues such as air traffic services, operation of flights, environmental protection and air safety.

These issues will continue to garner significant attention given that the global air transport network is projected to double in size by 2030. According to ICAO, the number of flights, currently 30 million annually, will grow to 60 million, while the total annual passengers served will rise to 6 billion from today’s 3 billion.

“That poses a significant challenge,” says Dr. Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu of Nigeria, the President of the ICAO Governing Council, noting the imperative to do everything possible to help ensure the safety of flights.

In an interview with the UN News Centre, Dr. Aliu said that a common misconception about ICAO is that the agency is responsible for determining air routes and deciding whether or not they are safe.

“Once the routes are designed, of course in collaboration with the industry, it is the responsibility and the obligation of the State through which the route passes to undertake risk assessment, to regulate the operation on the route and to either decide to close the route or keep it open,” he explained.

Especially in areas of conflict, States have the responsibility to assess the particular risks arising from the conflict and then make a decision on when and how to close the routes, he added.

When incidents do happen, as in eastern Ukraine, ICAO can be called on to assist with investigating. In the wake of this month’s tragedy, accident investigation experts from ICAO went to the country to assist their Ukrainian counterparts with the official accident investigation into the loss of the Malaysia Airlines flight.

Dr. Aliu explained that the sole objective of the investigation, which is not led by ICAO, is to identify the cause of an accident and to help prevent future accidents from happening.

“What we do, upon request, is to assist the process, ensure that the investigation is done in line with the relevant provisions of our Convention… and to provide guidance to the States in ensuring that it’s done,” he said, adding the presence of ICAO adds credibility to the process.


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