Security News – What went wrong on MH17?

21 July 2014
21 Jul 2014 -

On Thursday July 17th, flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was brought down over Eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 passengers and crew. All evidence suggests the aircraft was brought down by a ground-to-air missile fired from a part of Ukraine held by pro-Russian separatists.

But why was a civilian passenger jet flying directly over a conflict zone and should this disaster have been prevented?

Eurocontrol, the co-ordination centre for air-traffic control in Europe, said: “This route had been closed by the Ukrainian authorities from ground to flight level 320 [32,000 feet] but was open at the level at which the aircraft was flying.” However the plane was well within range of the  likely weapon used, a BUK or SA17 rocket launcher, which is accurate up to 78,000ft.

Whilst Malaysian Airlines, Lufthansa and other airlines had continued to fly over the conflict zone throughout the hostilities, other carriers such as British Airways had opted to utilise other routes, skirting either North or South of the affected area. Why Malaysian and other airlines did not follow suit will be a tough question to address in the aftermath of the disaster.

It is common for passenger jets to fly over zones of low-grade conflict, since the weaponry typically employed on the ground tends not to be sophisticated enough to threaten high altitude aircraft. The difference here is that the separatists appear to have been equipped with and perhaps also trained in the use of weaponry usually only available to national state militaries.

Although the full details of what happened will be pieced together over the coming weeks and months, it is clear that the laxity of the authorities could also have been motivated by commercial concerns. The pro-Russian separatists had already displayed their ability to bring down aircraft, having destroyed a Ukrainian military transport plane, a cargo plane and numerous helicopters, among other aircraft. Since flying over Eastern Ukraine is the shortest route for many flights into Kuala Lumpur, Malaysian Airlines took a calculated risk in saving fuel costs by continuing to use this route. Similarly, the Ukrainian government charges airlines a significant amount for access to its airspace and stood to suffer financially if all commercial flights over Eastern Ukraine ceased during an extended conflict.

So what can you do to minimise risks when selecting airlines and destinations for yourself and for your customers? Well, there are a number of precautions. First, stay aware of the safety records of airlines that you engage regularly, Skytrax is a reliable source of information on this. Secondly, travel organisations need to keep up-to-date on geopolitical developments and country risk assessments. Organisations such as Control Risks and Eurasia Group provide reports, analysis and security predictions for companies that operate internationally. IASIS can help to put you in touch with these organisations.

And what now for  passengers reluctant to fly?

Unfortunately, there is little option but to cancel and lose some or all of the fare. Since all commercial carriers have now altered their routes to avoid this region, “Disinclination to travel” is not regarded as grounds for  cancellation, nor for claims to be made on travel insurance.