Terrorism: Risk Reset

The tragedy of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) has highlighted the aviation industry’s fragmented and uncoordinated approach to airspace risk assessment, resulting in growing calls from airlines and industry groups for collective action to address this issue. The scale of the loss of life resulting from the shoot down over Ukraine, and the anger directed at those responsible for the deaths of 298 people has been the focus so far. But there is little doubt that change is coming for the industry with the degree yet to be determined.
MH17 is only the latest example of how widely airlines and national authorities differ in their response to airspace security or safety threats. There is very little in the way of centralized directives and guidance, and much of the responsibility for warnings is placed on the local authorities concerned despite the clear potential for political or financial influence. Questions that are already being debated include whether individual airlines are sufficiently—and equally—able to make judgments about risks in distant regions, whether threat assessments are adequately handled by the country concerned, and whether there should be a broader mechanism for assessing and sharing recommendations. While ambitious multinational concepts sound attractive in theory, some industry executives warn that they could be difficult to implement in practice—particularly when it comes to the sensitive topic of sharing intelligence. However, some type of action is certain. Many airlines and aviation organizations are pushing for representative bodies like the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) to address the risk-assessment issue and are calling for summit meetings to be convened.
Qantas believes that global aviation bodies are best suited to identify—and be part of—any solution to risk-assessment issues. The British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) is calling for ICAO to have stronger powers to play a larger role in risk assessment. ICAO’s purpose should be to lead where national authorities cannot and it should have the tools to do that, says BALPA’s General Secretary Jim McAuslan. The problem of the absence of a clear international coordination to avoid operations above eastern Ukraine has now become tragically obvious, and to avoid a repeat ICAO should be better resourced and enabled to declare airspace unsafe. Airspace safety requires the right information in the right place at the right time, says Civil Air Navigation Services Organization (CANSO) Director General Jeff Poole. CANSO recommends convening a thorough review by a joint high-level task force comprising representatives from ICAO Sates and industry to consider responsibilities, the systems and processes to be followed and actions to be taken regarding airspace risks in conflict zones. For its part, IATA emphasizes that state-level action is required.
One of the most notable aspects of the MH17 shootdown is the wide range of risk assessments by airlines operating in the region, which is a major crossroads for both east-west and north-south flights. While some major airlines had opted to avoid eastern Ukraine routes, most kept using them. How airlines approach risk assessment will no doubt come under more intense scrutiny—as will the apparent lack of uniformity. BALPA says the current system of each airline deciding for itself whether to avoid certain airspace is flawed. This approach can give an illusion of safety, but it is in fact vulnerable to all sorts of influences, including commercial pressure, and so it is not surprising to us that there are differences in the way that this risk is assessed by different airlines, BALPA states, That is not good enough. Another pilot group, the European Cockpit Association (ECA), states that the MH17 incident exposed a significant weakness—if not a failure—of international threat and risk assessment in civil aviation. ECA President Nico Voorbach says that appropriate risk assessment apparently did occur, but only for the carriers of some countries. It appears that some airlines have access to very good intelligence and advice from the most powerful national security services . . . while others are left at greater risk. Information should be shared in such a way that the highest levels of risk avoidance can be rolled out to all, says Voorbach. In some cases, national authorities had issued official prohibitions or warnings to their airlines relating to parts of Ukraine’s airspace. Again, however, their content differed significantly. The FAA had issued a notice preventing U.S. carriers from operating over Crimea. But this did not apply to the eastern Ukraine until after the shootdown, and U.S. carriers had only voluntarily opted to avoid the area. ICAO had also issued warnings concerning Crimean airspace. The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) does not have the authority to close airspace or to prohibit any airlines from flying in specific areas. These responsibilities rest with the European member states.
It is standard practice for many international organizations to defer to the country involved to determine if its airspace is safe to operate in. In the wake of MH17, both Eurocontrol and ICAO stressed that it is the duty of local authorities to assess risk and implement restrictions.
In the case of Ukraine, its aviation authorities restricted overflights in the eastern part of the country to 32,000 ft and above. MH17 was above this level when it was struck by a missile. Eurocontrol—which handles flow control across European airspace—had adhered to Ukrainian airspace restrictions. This reliance on the aviation authority from the country under threat raises important questions; however, financial or political pressures could influence its decision to close airspace, particularly if the country involved is in turmoil. It is unclear if any such issues affected Ukraine’s risk assessment process. However, it is worth noting that Ukraine’s air navigation service provider UkSATSE was particularly reliant on overflight fees that stemmed from the busy traffic corridors in its airspace. Some senior European Commission transportation officials are troubled by the notion that it is left entirely up to individual states to decide whether to open, close or restrict parts of their airspace with little need of explanation as to why it has—or has not—done so.

Delta’s decision-making considers intelligence provided by governments, and the carrier has “good cooperation” and regular coordination with both U.S. and foreign officials, Delta’s CEO avers. While Anderson did not reject the concept of a broader risk-assessment effort, he believes that operational safety decisions are ultimately the airline’s responsibility. However, there are also weaknesses in th airline-specific approach, according to a top security executive with a major international airline that frequently overflies the Ukrainian region. His airline gathers information through an informal network of sources that comprises other carriers, large corporations in myriad industries and the intelligence community. One additional problem is that even in the intelligence community the level of expertise varies greatly from country to country. In the case of Ukraine, assumptions by airlines and outside experts were proven wrong, notes the executive. The shooting down of an aircraft at cruise altitude was a scenario that no airline had anticipated.
The industry has so far seen shoulder-fired weapons as the main threat. But judging threats to aircraft at cruise altitudes is a lot more difficult because it is impossible to perform a daily risk assessment as the routes are changing daily. We rely on the military to keep SAMs (surface-to-air-missiles) under control in our security assumptions.

Courtesy of: AWST July 28, 2014; Risk Reset by Adrian Schofield, Jens Flottau, Cathy Buyck, Sean Broderick, and John Croft.


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