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Flight MH17: The unthinkable happens

ATW Editor's Blog by Karen Walker 17 and 18 Jul.14

The entire air transport industry as well as the traveling public is in shock today as we come to terms with the second catastrophic loss of a Boeing 777, one of aviation’s most revered, safe and reliable aircraft.

Heartfelt thoughts go to the families of all 280 passengers and 15 crew onboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, and also to everyone at Malaysia Airlines, which now finds itself in the unthinkable, unbearable situation of dealing with two fatal crashes and the loss of so many of its crew in less than six months.

It’s far too early to know the cause of the MH17 tragedy, but sadly that will not prevent the sort of insane speculation that we saw with MH370. That will not be helpful to either the investigation or the relatives and loved ones of those who died today.

What we do know is that MH17 was en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia Airlines said in a statement that “it received notification from Ukrainian ATC that it had lost contact with flight MH17 … approximately 50km from the Russia-Ukraine border.”

The flight departed Amsterdam at 12:15pm local time. And there are photographs of the wreckage that clearly indicate a sudden and catastrophic event.

FAA, meanwhile, has issued a statement saying it has been in contact with US carriers following the crash and that carriers have voluntarily agreed not to operate in the airspace near the Russian-Ukraine border. FAA is monitoring the situation to determine whether further guidance is necessary.

FAA issued a NOTAM in April prohibiting US flight operations until further notice in the airspace over the Crimean region of Ukraine, and portions adjacent to the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. The NOTAM does not currently cover the airspace where MH17 crashed.

The political fallout from this event will be enormous and, combined with the location of the wreckage, make this a hugely difficult and challenging investigation that could also be dangerous to the on-site investigators.

Airlines can take the high road on MH17 via airshow boycott
Jul 18, 2014 by Karen Walker in ATW Editor's Blog

If, as now seems certain, Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 and the 298 people on board were casualties of war, then this is tragically not the first time. But it should be the last.

One outcome of this crash will likely be scrutiny of who determines and governs those airspace routes that are deemed unsafe for commercial airliners.

It appears that MH17 was in airspace deemed safe to fly in by Eurocontrol, despite this being over a combat zone where other military aircraft have been shot down recently. The only restriction was that airliners should stay above 32,000ft. Information from the MH17 flight indicates it was at 33,000ft when contact was lost. Clearly, a 1,000ft margin was not enough. But given that the type of sophisticated surface-to-air missiles known to be operating in the Ukraine/Russia border regions can easily reach altitudes of more than twice 32,000ft, the wisdom of allowing any airliners to fly over that zone must be questioned.

IATA quickly set up a task force in the wake of the Malaysia Airlines MH370 disappearance and crash to explore and recommend options for better ways to continuously track airliners around the globe. Given the number of dangerous conflicts that now regularly ignite around the world, a separate task force may be necessary to establish a global, uniform authority and set of rules for determining the safety of commercial airspace routes and regulating their use.

That would be a common sense response to the MH17 disaster, but it would still be a remedy, not a solution.

I’ve been working this week at the Farnborough Airshow in the UK. International airshows are a regular part of the air transportation and aerospace calendar; they generate huge media interest and are both symbols of prestige for their host nations and conduits for billions of dollars of trade.

But the irony of this week’s events is that on the one hand, we have seen many of the world’s airline top executives attending Farnborough to complete and sign huge new airliner and engine deals at ceremonies in front of the world’s press.

And on the other hand, all around them are companies who make the kind of weapons that are now suspected of bringing down one of their own. Indeed, there are actual exhibits of those types of weapons at Farnborough, which opens to the public this weekend. In truth, these airshows are also arms trade fairs.

So I propose that airline executives join together and boycott airshows for as long as they are inclusive of both airliner makers and airliner destroyers.

It may be a crazy idea, but it’s nowhere as crazy as the shooting down of an airliner. And it’s one that would give airlines a chance to demonstrate they will no longer permit their aircraft, passengers and crew to become needless, innocent victims of war.