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Dutch Safety Board: better handling of overflying conflict zones by airline industry since MH17
21 February 2019

Worldwide, airlines are handling the risks associated with overflying conflict zones more deliberately, according to a report published by the Dutch Safety Board. The Board investigated the level of implementation of their recommendations on the MH17 crash investigation.

Since the crash of MH17, the issue has been incorporated into the international Standards and Recommended Practices, manuals and management systems of aviation organisations, including ICAO and IATA, the Safety Board states. Manuals have been published that devote specific attention to overflying conflict zones. In addition, more and more accurate information on conflict zones is now available for States and airlines to incorporate into their risk assessment operations.

Aviation safety
The investigation shows that a range of measures has been implemented. However, the effect on flight safety is difficult to measure. States and airlines around the world are aware of the issue at stake and devote more attention to it. Stakeholders no longer assume that open airspace over a conflict zone actually guarantees safe passage. Airlines are taking a more structured approach to analysing the risks and uncertainties, scaling up to a higher risk level at an earlier stage. Some airlines state that they now decide more quickly to refrain from overflying specific areas if no clear information relating to such areas is available.

Information on conflict zones
Progress has also been made on sharing threat-related information. For instance, the European Commission now organises meetings with representatives of EU member states and relevant EU bodies to analyse, on the basis of consolidated information from the intelligence services, the risk levels for overflying specific areas. Areas classified as ‘high-risk zones’ during the meeting are listed in a ‘Conflict Zone Information Bulletin’ that is published by EASA and made available to airlines and passengers worldwide. ‘Rapid Alerts’ can be deployed to instantly share information about suddenly escalating situations. This is how the EU member states collaborate to provide more adequate insight into the risks on a global scale.

In the Netherlands, a special agreement has been established that ensures the exchange of threat information between the Dutch government and Dutch airlines. There are meetings to discuss non-public threat information. These activities have resulted in a network, which ensures that information can be exchanged quickly in urgent cases, too. Moreover, Dutch airlines can turn to a dedicated information desk established by the Dutch intelligence services if they have specific questions.

Risk assessment
Airlines around the world have stated that they have become more aware of the risks of overflying conflict zones since the crash of flight MH17. Many airlines now make a more active effort to gather accurate information and are more willing to share it with other airlines. There are States, such as the United States, United Kingdom, France and Germany, that provide information and/or advice to national airlines, or even impose a ban on overflying specific conflict zones. That information is published to make it accessible to other airlines as well. In combination with the EASA bulletins and any information provided by (commercial) agencies, airlines now have access to more and generally more accurate information for their risk assessment operations.

Areas of concern
The follow-up investigation shows that important steps have been taken in recent years to control the risks associated with flying over conflict zones more effectively. It is essential for changes already implemented to be consolidated and for stakeholders to carry through with the subsequent steps they have announced. However, there are still issues that need to be addressed by nations and airlines. The investigators found that very few changes relating to airspace management by nations dealing with armed conflict within their territories have been made. Also, airlines require more detailed and complex information to perform adequate risk assessments. Information on suddenly escalating and/or new conflicts is another area of continued concern. In this context, the willingness and trust to actively inform other parties about (potential) threats are vital, something that does not come naturally in every region of the world.

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