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Decision on flight prohibition over conflict zones needed sooner
24 June 2021

In a newly released report, the Dutch Safety Board concludes that it is taking too long to reach a decision to restrict or avoid the airspace above a rapidly escalating armed conflict.

Twice in the past decade, a passenger plane has crashed after it was hit by a surface-to-air missile while flying over a conflict zone. On 17 July 2014, flight MH17 crashed in Ukraine. Flight PS752 crashed in Iran on 8 January 2020. The shoot down of PS752 led the Dutch Safety Board to conduct a review into the implementation of the recommendations in the MH17 Crash report and the conclusions in the report Flying over Conflict Zones.

Airspace management

The protection of civil aviation against the risks of flying over a conflict zone is primarily in the hands of the country where the conflict is taking place. This country may decide to restrict its airspace partially or completely. However, the Board concludes that this rarely happens. Even when the conflict between Iran and the United States escalated rapidly in January 2020, Iran’s airspace remained open. To improve this situation, the Board recommends developing international criteria for when a country should restrict its airspace.

Better risk assessments

In addition to the country of conflict, the airlines have an important responsibility of their own. When tensions rose in Iran in January 2020, this did not prompt airlines to avoid the country’s airspace and aircraft continued to fly over this high-risk area. The airlines did not refrain from flying over Iran because they concluded that the risk of being hit by a surface-to-air missile was unlikely, even while the consequences could have been catastrophic. Nor did any countries advise their own airlines to avoid flying over Iran. The Board recommends that all possible scenarios with catastrophic consequences should be given more weight in the risk assessments of both airlines and governments. In addition, when a conflict rapidly escalates, countries are still taking too long to collect and share new information, carry out a risk assessment and publish an advice. The Board recommends accelerating this process at the European level.

Advising and regulating the Dutch airlines

The provision of information to the Dutch airlines by the Dutch government has improved significantly in the years since the MH17 crash, but the Dutch government still only provides information, and does not issue an advice or a flight ban. Moreover, there is currently no legal basis for the minister to impose a flight prohibition over a certain area. However, other countries do have a legal basis. The Board advises the Minister of Infrastructure and Water Management and the Minster of Justice and Security to consider the possibility of imposing a flight prohibition in the law.

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