Academic Opinion: Malaysia Airlines MH17 - Put safety before profit in war zones

Posted by sb661 at Jul 22, 2014 11:30 AM |
Dr Simon Bennett asks what we can learn from the tragedy

The views expressed below are the views of the academic and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Leicester

We don’t know why the charred remains of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 lie scattered across eastern Ukraine. Understandably there is speculation. What matters is that the investigation team is given safe passage ... and that we avoid sensationalist reporting. Ukraine is a war zone. The situation on the ground is volatile and fast-changing. Both sides have access to advanced weaponry, including surface-to-air missiles. Flying at 33,000 feet, MH17 would have been safe from shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles. It would not have been safe from either advanced surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) or interception by fighter jets. Both Ukraine and Russia possess SAMs and fighters capable of shooting down high-flying aircraft. In 1983 a Soviet Su-15 fighter shot down a Boeing 747 operated by Korean Air Lines. Flight KAL007, carrying 269 passengers and crew, was en route from Anchorage to Seoul, when it strayed into Soviet airspace around the time of a U.S. military reconnaissance sortie. The Soviets initially denied responsibility. KAL007 was at 35,000 feet when the Su-15’s missile hit.

Why do aircraft overfly war zones? First, because it is considered unlikely that a commercial aircraft flying at high altitude will be targeted. Airlines process the risk assessments issued by national aviation authorities. Ukraine claimed it was safe for aircraft to overfly at altitudes greater than 32,000 feet. Secondly, because it makes commercial sense for airlines to fly the shortest-possible route. The shortest route between Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur takes aircraft through Ukrainian airspace. Flying around Ukraine would use more fuel, making the flight less profitable. Author Andrew Brookes reminds us that airlines balance safety and profit: “Operators want to run safe services, but their prime aim is to make a profit”. Airlines are in a dog-fight for profit. As the boss of American Airlines put it: “Aviation is intensely, vigorously, bitterly, savagely competitive”. The International Civil Aviation Organisation itself recognises that safety can never be airlines’ sole concern: “Decision-making in aviation operations is considered to be 100 per cent safety-oriented .... this is hardly realistic. Human decision-making in operational contexts is a compromise between production and safety goals”.

The loss of MH17, whether through mechanical failure, terrorism or human error, is shocking. We must remember, however, that aviation can never be 100% safe. As I wrote in the Leicester Mercury: “Flying several hundred people six miles above the earth at close to the speed of sound in an environment subject to turbulence and low temperatures (-55°C) in a pressurised aluminium tube packed with fuel, generators, air-conditioning units (that run hot), batteries and cabling is not without risk”. What can we learn from MH17? If the aircraft was brought down by either a missile or fighter, that it is best to navigate around war zones. The authorities should create a cordon sanitaire around trouble spots, with no altitude concession. In time of war, safety should come before profit.


Dr Simon Bennett Director, Civil Safety and Security Unit

The views expressed above are the views of the academic and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Leicester