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Information Transparency and No-Fly Zones in Conflict Areas

The crash of Metrojet flight 7K9268 from Sharm el-Sheikh to St. Petersburg over the weekend has again raised questions about the safety of flying anywhere near a war zone. However, the Sinai Desert is not technically a war zone, and early indications are that the plane was probably brought down by a bomb rather than a missile. The video released by an ISIS affiliate of the moment when the plane went down shows a flash originating from the aircraft (not a missile leading to the aircraft), there was no distress call, and the Russian government has already ruled out structural failure or pilot error as a contributing cause. If that is all true, then airport security was likely breached on the ground.

Airlines receive ongoing intelligence from their governments about perceived threats, and which air spaces to avoid flying over. Notices (Notice to Airmen, or NOTAM) that alert pilots of potential hazards along their designated routes are posted every minute of every day. Similarly, each country’s government makes a determination about which air corridors above them to restrict or close. Regional bodies — such as Europe’s air traffic control (Eurocontrol) — can also impose restrictions, but it is ultimately up to the airlines and individual pilots to decide whether to comply or not.

Since it is clear, particularly in light of the findings of the Dutch Safety Board regarding the shooting down of MH17, that some airlines comply with alerts and other do not, control should be taken away from airlines and pilots.

The Board found that 160 flights (composed of 61 airlines from 32 countries) flew over the same area as MH17 on the same day. As I noted in my July 2014 article “MH17 was Shot Down for Money,” it appeared that money was the common denominator that enabled the MH17 tragedy to happen. Ukraine wanted the revenue from overflights and Malaysia Airlines used the route because it was the most cost-effective.

Why should it be left to governments and airlines with skin in the game to decide whether to issue flight restrictions or comply with warnings? What is needed is an international governing body charged with enforcing air corridor restrictions or closures, rather than merely issuing protocols and alerts. The logical place to start is the United Nations, home of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a global clearinghouse for issuing notices to airlines and pilots about potential overflight dangers.

It would of course be unrealistic to expect that no flight zones for commercial aircraft can or would be enforced in every conflict zone in the world, but it should not be unachievable for those areas universally recognized as the worst among them. In the wake of MH17, would any government, airline or pilot want to assume legal and financial responsibility for the future downing of aircraft in corridors that everyone agrees are criminal to fly in? Then again, governments, airlines and pilots are certainly already aware of the risk, and choose to risk the lives of passengers, crew, and people on the ground by flying over these areas anyway.

How many passengers would willingly choose to fly on airlines that they know breach protocol, and choose to fly over conflict areas in spite of alerts and warnings? A number of multilateral organizations manage this process by restricting the airlines that their employees can use to fly near conflict areas. If the World Bank and IMF can effectively notify their employees about which airlines are deemed safe to fly with, and restrict which airlines may be used, why can’t governments and international bodies do the same thing? Why can’t lists be generated and published on a daily basis and released to the general public about which airlines comply with ICAO and NOTAM guidelines, and which do not? It is criminal that this is not already done.

It may be fanciful to imagine that no flight zones for commercial aircraft can be enforced in the worst impacted conflict areas around the globe when governments cannot even agree to impose such zone for military aircraft. And yet, that is ultimately what is needed, in conjunction with greater transparency and information sharing regarding current flight restrictions and airlines that comply with those restrictions, in order for the flying public to have a real sense of safety and comfort when flying over conflict zones. As it stands now, doing so is little more than gambling.

This article was originally posted in The Huffington Post.