United Nations to review dangers of flying in conflict zones after deadly Iran crash

The UN's aviation agency says it will review the issue of passenger planes flying in conflict zones in the wake of the Flight PS752 disaster that killed 176 people. It has also been invited by Iran to participate in the crash investigation.

UN experts, including 4 Canadians, join investigation to observe and advise

A team of six managers and experts from the UN's International Civil Aviation Organization has joined the investigation into the downing of Flight PS752 to advise and monitor Iran and other countries involved in the probe. (Ebrahim Noroozi/The Associated Press)

The United Nations' aviation agency says it will review the issue of passenger planes flying in conflict zones in the wake of the Flight PS752 disaster that killed 176 people, including 57 Canadians. 

In a rare move, a team with the UN's International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), including four Canadians, has also joined the safety investigation into the Ukrainian plane that was shot down by Iran on Jan. 8. 

The tragedy raised questions about why passenger planes were allowed to take off in Iran while the military was on high alert after attacking bases in Iraq that house U.S. troops just hours earlier. At the time of the crash, Iran kept its airspace open. Ukraine and Ukraine International Airlines also didn't ground the plane. 

It's up to countries dealing with conflict to close down their airspace. The onus is also on other countries and airlines to proactively complete their own risk assessment and decide whether it's safe to fly in the region, according to international aviation conventions. 

ICAO confirmed to CBC News it will look into its conflict zone guidance and compliance once the investigation into the crash is complete. 

"All of this depends on the recommendations brought forward by the investigating states," ICAO spokesperson Anthony Philbin said in a statement to CBC News. 

Iran invited ICAO to provide expert advice as part of the probe. The move came as pressure from the international community mounted for a thorough and transparent investigation into how and why Iran shot the passenger plane out of the sky.

Four out of six senior and technical staff ICAO assigned to the case are based out of the agency's headquarters in Montreal. The team is advising and observing Iran's work to make sure its investigators comply with international requirements.

A series of recommendations around flying in conflict zones came out of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 tragedy in Eastern Ukraine on Nov. 20, 2014. (Antonio Bronic/Reuters)

"Whether they may eventually be required to go to Iran will be up to the states they're assisting as things proceed," Philbin said of ICAO's experts. 

They will also work directly with other countries involved in the investigation, including Canada. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday he is encouraged ICAO is involved because its presence will help "ensure that these situations no longer happen." 

Six other cases

There have  been six other cases since the 1980s where ICAO consulted on a deadly aviation crash. 

More than 30 years ago, the agency had an advisory role after a U.S. navy ship missile shot down an Iran Air jetliner on its way to Dubai, killing all 290 people on board.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani reminded the world about that 1988 crash in a tweet just days before Iran admitted it mistakenly shot down Flight PS752.

Other cases the UN agency monitored include: 

  • Pakistan: On July 18, 2010, an Airblue Airbus A320 crashed near Islamabad, killing all 146 passengers and six crew on board. 
  • Sudan: A helicopter contracted by the UN crashed in the Darfur region, killing four crew members on Sept. 29, 2008. 
  • Cuba: Two private American planes were shot down by a Cuban military aircraft on Feb. 24, 1996, killing four pilots. 

More recently, ICAO consulted on the investigation into the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over Eastern Ukraine in July 2014. The crash killed 298 people, including one Canadian. The investigation found the plane was shot down over territory held by pro-Russian separatists.

'There were still potential gaps'

After MH17, the Dutch Safety Board followed up with a report about the risk of flying over conflict zones and found that countries with ongoing armed conflict are reluctant to close their airspace.

The board concluded the aviation parties involved had not adequately recognized the risks of the armed conflict in the area. But it also found the current system of assessing risks associated with flying over conflict areas is "in urgent need of improvement."

ICAO set up a special task force following the MH17 tragedy and created an online tool so countries could better share their conflict zone information.

"Airlines are required to conduct regular risk assessments along their route networks using all available information," according to the agency's website. 

Kathy Fox, chair of Canada's Transportation Safety Board, was asked last week if the world went far enough implementing the recommendations, and she said no. She cited a warning included in the Dutch report: in countries where there is "ongoing armed conflict," officials cannot be counted on to bar commercial airliners from the airspace on their own initiative.

"They recognized, when this report was issued, that there were still potential gaps. And unfortunately, we're seeing the results of that," Fox said.

They recognized, when this report was issued, that there were still potential gaps.- Kathy Fox, chair of the Transportation Safety Board of Canada

ICAO has also made a series of updates to its international requirements because of the lessons learned from the shooting down of MH17. That work included improving its risk assessment manual on civil aircraft operations over or near conflict zones. 

Countries have also endorsed a manual about safety measures related to military activities that could pose a danger to commercial airliners, as well as guidance on civil and military co-operation in air traffic management. However, these amendments won't come into effect until later this year. 


Ashley Burke

Senior reporter

Ashley Burke is a senior reporter with the CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa who focuses on enterprise journalism for television, radio and digital platforms. She earned the Charles Lynch Award and was a finalist for the Michener Award for her exclusive reporting on the toxic workplace at Rideau Hall. She has also uncovered allegations of sexual misconduct against senior military leaders. Her beats include transport, defence and federal government accountability. You can reach her confidentially by email: ashley.burke@cbc.ca or https://www.cbc.ca/securedrop/

With files from Peter Zimonjic, Mark Gollom and the Associated Press.


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