International aviation officials agreed Tuesday to form a task force aimed at better coordinating government security information to prevent another airliner from getting shot down like Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
International Civil Aviation Organization, a branch of the United Nations based in Montreal, said the task force of industry experts would generate recommendations that could potentially be considered at a security meeting planned in February.
The goal is to get clear, accurate threat warnings from governments about conflict zones so that airlines can make better decisions about where to avoid flying.
“While aviation is the safest mode of transport, the MH17 incident raised troubling concerns with respect to civilian aircraft flying to, from and over conflict zones,” said Raymond Benjamin, ICAO’s secretary-general, who called the disaster “unacceptable.”
Ukraine had warned airlines to stay above 32,000 feet while flying over that country because of military hostilities with pro-Russia separatists. But the Malaysia flight was shot down at 33,000 feet, killing all 298 people aboard.
“It’s essential that airlines receive clear guidance regarding threats to their passengers, crew and aircraft,” said Tony Tyler, CEO of the International Air Transport Association, a trade group representing 240 airlines worldwide. “There can be no excuses. Even sensitive information can be sanitized in a way that ensures that airlines get essential actionable information without compromising their sources.”
Airline travel remains safe for the 3.3 million who board planes each year. But he said flaws in the system must be fixed after the downing of MH17.
“It exposed a gap in the system. The system is not broken,” Tyler said. “The challenge is to close the specific gap or gaps that allowed this tragedy to happen.”
A difficulty in evaluating security information was revealed last week, when the Federal Aviation Administration prohibited U.S. flights to Tel Aviv for 36 hours after a rocket fell about a mile from Ben Gurion International Airport.
The European Aviation Safety Agency issued a strong warning to avoid Tel Aviv. But a number of airlines continued to fly before the FAA lifted its ban.
“It’s not helpful when you get conflicting decisions or information, such as we saw last week in Tel Aviv,” Tyler said. “Governments must do better. We can’t have situations like that occurring.”
Angela Gittens, director general of Airports Council International, said she couldn’t comment on the FAA’s decisions. But she said the incident illustrated the difficulties the industry faces in making consistent decisions.
“That’s going to be a challenge for the task force to address,” Gittens said.