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John Ivison: Tehran skies were thick with tension, and an airliner had no place near a conflict zone

John Ivison: Tehran skies were thick with tension, and an airliner had no place near a conflict zone
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“Clear your throat, sound confident and assertive and not at all nervous and key the mic…. ‘Tehran Air Defence, good evening…’.”

The social media post by the pilot of an international airline flying into the Iranian capital just hours before a Ukrainian passenger jet was blasted out of the sky by a missile reveals the tension that was already in the air, not to mention the trepidation at dealing with jumpy local authorities.

Following the attacks on U.S. forces at the Ain al-Asad air base in Iraq in the early hours of January 8, it is incredible that any civilian aircraft were flying in or out of Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport. The Ukranian jet’s flight path took it near several Iranian ballistic missile facilities, which were expecting reprisal attacks by the Americans.

Yet data from industry tracking firm FlightAware shows that Ukraine International Airlines flight 752 to Kyiv was the ninth to take off from the airport after the attacks had begun. In fact, it was business as usual in Tehran, with 19 flights taking off before noon, compared to 20 the previous week. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration had banned all American carriers from flying in regional airspace shortly after the attacks. Some other airlines, like Australia’s Qantas, followed suit. But many did not.

It was business as usual in Tehran, with 19 flights taking off before noon, compared to 20 the previous week

If any good is to come from the missile strike that killed 57 Canadians it is that airlines engage in additional risk assessment when flying over or into conflict zones.

“It’s the responsibility of the government owning the airspace to close it,” said Capt. John Cox, a Washington-based accident investigator and aviation consultant.

That Iran failed to do so suggests gross negligence or, worse, an attempt to use civilian aircraft as human shields against American retaliation.

General view of the debris of the Ukraine International Airlines, flight PS752, Boeing 737-800 plane that crashed after take-off from Iran’s Imam Khomeini airport, on the outskirts of Tehran, Iran January 8, 2020 is seen in this screen grab obtained from a social media video. Reuters

Cox suggests it was more likely the result of a communications breakdown – “that the military did not tell its civil aviation authority very much”.

Whatever the explanation, it is clear that the current system is broken. As Ukraine International Airlines CEO Evgeniy Dykhne said: “When the airplane was taking off from Tehran…we had no information about any looming threat. So we made no decision (to ground the plane) because there was no reason for that. No civil aviation agency issued any warnings.”

After Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine on its journey between Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur, with the death of all 298 passengers, the Dutch Safety Board made a number of recommendations to improve the safety of planes flying over conflict zones.

Crucially, it urged the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization to be more pro-active, even closing or restricting the use of airspace in some cases. That proposal would require an amendment to the Chicago Convention governing civil aviation. As Cox said, the ICAO moves fairly slowly. “The idea has merit and should be looked at. But we’re not going to see it overnight,” he said.

However, it is clear from avoidable calamities like MH17 and Flight 752 that operators cannot take for granted that unrestricted airspaces are safe.

Justin Trudeau was stating the obvious when he said that the 57 Canadian victims would be safely back home if tensions between Iran and the United States had not escalated.

The same would likely be true if an international body such as the ICAO had issued a flight prohibition to carriers in the wee hours of January 8, as the U.S. regulator did.

Transportation Safety Board investigators from Canada are in Iran to take part in the incident post-mortem. Natacha Van Themsche, the TSB’s director of air investigations, said the question of why the airspace was not closed, given the tensions in the region, is one it will consider.

If its findings reinforce those of the Dutch Safety Board – that ICAO and airlines should carry out their own risk assessment – the investigation will have been a worthwhile exercise.
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