Safe flight routes - Responses to escalating conflicts
On 17 July 2014, flight MH17 crashed in Ukraine, following the detonation of a surface-to-air missile outside the aircraft’s cockpit. All 298 persons on board lost their lives in the crash. The Dutch Safety Board investigated the crash and published a final report (in 2015) and a follow-up report (in 2019) about the risks of flying over conflict zones.
Less than six years later, on 8 January 2020, flight PS752 was also shot down by a surface-to-air missile, shortly after taking off from Teheran Airport in Iran. All 176 persons on board were killed. This crash once again raised concerns about the decisions taken in respect of flying over or near conflict zones.
Despite the fact that there was no Dutch involvement in the crash of flight PS752, the Dutch Minister of Infrastructure and Water Management requested the Dutch Safety Board to reflect further on the implementation of the recommendations from the MH17 Crash report. This request was focused on possible improvements to the national, European and global system for better managing the risks involved in flying over conflict zones. In response to this request, the Dutch Safety Board decided to start an additional follow-up investigation into the safety of flight routes.
Decision on flight prohibition over conflict zones needed sooner
Twice in the past decade, a passenger plane has crashed after it was hit by a surface-to-air missile while flying over a conflict zone. On 17 July 2014, flight MH17 crashed in Ukraine. Flight PS752 crashed in Iran on 8 January 2020. This was reason for the Dutch Safety Board to conduct (partly at the request of the Minister of Infrastructure and Water Management) a review into the implementation of the recommendations in the MH17 Crash report and the conclusions in the report Flying over Conflict Zones.
The protection of civil aviation against the risks of flying over a conflict zone is primarily in the hands of the country where the conflict is taking place. This country may decide to restrict its airspace partially or completely. However, the Board concludes that this rarely happens. Even when the conflict between Iran and the United States escalated rapidly in January 2020, Iran’s airspace remained open. To improve this situation, the Board recommends developing international criteria for when a country should restrict its airspace.
Better risk assessments
In addition to the country of conflict, the airlines have an important responsibility of their own. When tensions rose in Iran in the early 2020s, this did not prompt airlines to avoid the country’s airspace and aircraft continued to fly over this high-risk area. The airlines did not refrain from flying over Iran because they concluded that the risk of being hit by a surface-toair missile was unlikely, even while the consequences could have been catastrophic. But nor did any countries advise their own airlines to avoid flying over Iran. The Board recommends that all possible scenarios with catastrophic consequences should be given more weight in the risk assessments of both airlines and governments. In addition, when a conflict rapidly escalates, countries are still taking too long to collect and share new information, carry out a risk assessment and publish an advice. The Board recommends accelerating this process at the European level.
Advising and regulating the Dutch airlines
The provision of information to the Dutch airlines by the Dutch government has improved significantly in the years since the MH17 crash, but the Dutch government still only provides information, and does not come with advice or a flight prohibition. Moreover, there is currently no legal basis for the minister to impose a flight prohibition over a certain area. This does happen in other countries, including important allies of the Netherlands. The Board advises the Minister of Infrastructure and Water Management and the Minster of Justice and Security to consider the possibility of imposing a flight prohibition in the law.
To the Minister of Infrastructure and Water Management and the Minister of Justice and Security:
National: advice and regulation
1. Consider expanding the possibilities for the Dutch state, in addition to the provision of information to airlines, to also issue advice, and as the ultimate remedy, to impose a flight prohibition for Dutch operators in foreign airspace.
To the Minister of Infrastructure and Water Management:
International: innovation of the risk assessment methods
2. Encourage the development and application of risk assessment methods based on the precautionary principle for civil aviation operations over or near conflict zones. Take the initiative on international level to further develop the risk assessment methods as described in ICAO Doc 10084. Closely involve airlines and work out how possible catastrophic scenarios can be identified in the event of an escalating conflict, and how uncertainties must be taken into account in the analysis and decision-making.
International: criteria for airspace closures
3. Take the initiative at international level to develop a specific proposal for a stricter definition of the responsibility of states with regard to airspace management, so that it is clear in which cases the airspace should be closed. Urge the inclusion of this proposal in the Chicago Convention and the underlying Standards and Recommended Practices.
To the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA):
European: effectiveness of European guidance
4. Further develop the European Information Sharing and Cooperation Platform on Conflict Zones by expanding the available information without losing rapidity, including analysis and recommendations to member states, airlines and other stakeholders.
To the Commissioner for Home Affairs and the Commissioner for Transport of the European Commission:
European: effectiveness of European guidance
5. Enhance the efficiency and the effectiveness of the European Integrated Aviation Security Risk Assessment process, so that Conflict Zone Information Bulletins are published faster and include information and recommendations that are tailored to the operational needs of airlines.
- Appendix Dutch Safety Board recommendations 'Safety flight routes' (Dutch)
- Reaction Minister of Infrastructure and Water Management (Dutch)
- Reaction European Commission on recommendations 'Safe flight routes'
- Reaction EASA recommendations 'Safe flight routes'
- Respons Dutch Safety Board to follow-up recommendations 'Safe flightroutes