As the investigation continues into the downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane by the Iranian military near Tehran last week, questions have been raised as to why the country’s airspace remained open to civilian aircraft.
On Saturday, Iran admitted that its military “unintentionally” shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, killing all 176 aboard, including 57 Canadians, after repeatedly denying it was responsible.
In a statement, Iran said the country’s military was on high alert due to the “unprecedented threats” from the U.S., which had ordered a strike that killed top-ranking Iranian military officer Gen. Qassem Soleimani on Jan. 3.
Iran said the aircraft was approaching a “sensitive military base” belonging to the Revolutionary Guards Corps after takeoff and that “human error” was to blame for the shootdown.
‘A recipe for disaster’
Andrew Nicholson, CEO of Osprey Flight Solutions, a U.K.-based organization that provides risk-management analysis for the aviation industry, said after Iran launched a barrage of missiles at two Iraqi military bases in retaliation for Soleimani’s killing, the country’s airspace should have been closed.
He said the situation was a “recipe for disaster.”
“All the components were there,” he said. “Military is on high alert, capable weapon system in the vicinity of what was still a relatively busy traffic route.”
However, according to Nicholson, Iranian authorities were the only ones who could have closed the airspace.
“And that action by the Iranian authorities would have stopped this from happening,” he said. “That’s very clear. No one should have been there, and yes, the airspace should have been closed.”
David Soucie, a former U.S. Federal Aviation Administration accident inspector and CNN safety analyst, said that typically, most states will close their airspace when there’s an active anti-aircraft system in the area.
“The fact that they were as close as they were to the airport and within the range of that missile is something that should’ve been notified to the air carrier,” he said.
Soucie said the Iranian government should have notified the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) that there was a heightened risk and military action in the area.
“ICAO publishes that, and it’s available to all the member states,” he said. “But that system is very, very weak and not truly available to everyone.”
In a statement released Monday, ICAO said it is the responsibility of member states to co-ordinate and publish “activities hazardous to civilian aviation arising in their territories.”
The ICAO said the publication should be “sufficiently far in advance of any hazard to allow all international civil aircraft to plan their routes clear of such areas” and that airlines are required to conduct regular risk assessments along their route networks using “all available information.”
Philip Baum, a U.K.-based aviation security expert and visiting professor of aviation security at Coventry University, also said the airspace “absolutely” should have been closed, adding that the decision not to was, at best, “incompetence.”
Baum said the moment Iran launched the attack in Iraq, officials knew there was a “possibility of risk to civil aviation.”
“Even the military had recommended the airspace be closed,” he said.
Is the airline to blame?
When it comes to the airline, Nicholson said it is difficult to know how much information its risk-assessment team had to inform the decision on whether to allow flights to operate in the area.
“The airline certainly wouldn’t know what the alert status was of the Iranian military,” he said. “I think it is exceedingly unlikely that the Iranian government would have shared with Ukrainian satellite airlines or any foreign airline the status of their military.”
Nicholson said the information available to them wouldn’t have been in “black and white.”
“They made the judgment that the threat was not high enough to warrant the massive commercial and operational disruption of stopping flights in the area,” he said.
Speaking to reporters on Saturday, Ukraine International Airlines vice-president Ihor Sosnovsky said it was “completely irresponsible” that the airspace was not closed.
“If you play at war, you play as much as you want, but there are normal people around who you had to protect,” he said. “If they are shooting from somewhere to somewhere, they were obliged to close the airport. Obliged. And then shoot as much as you want.”
Yevhenii Dykhne, the airline’s president and chief executive officer, said the airline had not done anything wrong in terms of following security procedures and that when the plane departed from Kyiv’s Boryspil airport, the airline had “no information about possible threats.”
“At the time of departure from Tehran, it was exactly the same,” he said.
In a statement on Saturday, Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization said the plane had not veered off its normal course.
“Until now, no flight deviation of the airplane which had the accident has been proven,” the statement said.
Airspace warnings and assessing personal risk
When it comes to individuals concerned for their safety, Soucie said there is no “systemic way” for people to “actually assess their own risk.”
“How do they know that they’re getting on an airline that’s going to fly them into a war zone?“
Soucie said, however, that some tools exist, including the website Safe Airspace, that can help civilians to determine for themselves if it is safe to travel in certain areas.
What’s more, on Wednesday, commercial airlines began rerouting flights crossing the Middle East to avoid danger.
Air Canada, the country’s only airline operating in the region, has rerouted its flight from Toronto to Dubai through Egypt and Saudi Arabia to avoid travelling over Iraq.
In a statement released on Saturday, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) said European airlines should avoid the Iranian airspace “until further notice.”
The advice expands on an earlier EASA recommendation that national authorities bar airlines from overflying Iran below 25,000 feet.
It was issued “in light of the statement from Iran that its armed forces accidentally shot down a Ukrainian passenger aircraft,” EASA said.
— With files from the Associated Press and Reuters