The United Nations agency responsible for coordinating international aviation safety has called a high-level conference in February for its 191 member states to address issues raised by the July 17 downing of a Malaysia Airlines jet flying over strife-torn eastern Ukraine.
But the International Civil Aviation Organization, which met this week in Montreal with representatives of pilots, airlines and air-traffic control organizations, conceded that major obstacles stand in the way of compelling states to give honest assessments of the risks of commercial flights over their territory.
A case in point arose Wednesday when the Iraqi government insisted that its airspace was safe, despite fear that Islamic militants controlling swaths of the country have acquired surface-to-air missiles during recent raids of Iraqi military arsenals.
Air France, KLM, Virgin Atlantic, Emirates and Etihad airlines reported that they had identified alternate routes around the insurgent-held areas, or had ceased all flights over Iraq.
Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was carrying 298 passengers and crew members from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, when it was downed by a surface-to-air missile while flying at 33,000 feet over eastern Ukraine. All on board were killed.
A Dutch-led crash investigation team has been hindered by pro-Russia militants who control the crash site, where dozens of bodies remain.
The Ukrainian government had issued a notice just days before the disaster warning that commercial aircraft should stay above 32,000 feet while over the eastern territory occupied by heavily armed separatists. But the SA-7 rocket and BUK launching system believed to have been supplied to the gunmen by Russia are capable of reaching targets as high as 19 miles, about three times the altitude at which the doomed jet was flying.
At Tuesday's meeting of aviation safety experts in Montreal, officials representing the International Air Transport Assn. said airlines need access to "neutral information based on objective criteria."
An IATA official was quoted by the Globe and Mail newspaper as saying some countries have an economic incentive to minimize the risk of flying over their territory because governments earn fees from carriers for providing air-traffic control.
"Airlines do not have CIA operatives working for them," the unidentified IATA source told the newspaper. "At the end of the day, airlines have to decide whether to fly or not based on accurate information."
Some countries, the source said, "will never, ever say there is a problem with their airspace."
The International Civil Aviation Organization has to depend on voluntarily provided information about potential hazards, and has no authority to close airspace even if risks are identified.
The U.N. agency as well as the IATA and organizations representing airports, airlines and controllers issued a statement after their meeting saying that "states have been reminded by ICAO of their responsibilities to address any potential risks to civil aviation in their airspace."
IATA chief Tony Tyler said at a news conference after the Montreal meeting that member countries have a "moral duty" to provide information that is relevant and reliable.
"Even sensitive information can be sanitized in a way that ensures airlines get essential and actionable information without compromising methods or sources," Tyler said.
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