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Some Airline Companies Still Struggle with How to Avoid Conflict Areas

FILE - A Malaysian air crash investigator inspects the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, near the village of Hrabove (Grabovo) in Donetsk region, Ukraine, July 22, 2014. (REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev/File Photo)
Some Airline Companies Still Struggle with How to Avoid Conflict Areas
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It has been nearly five years since a Malaysian passenger airplane was shot down over Ukraine.

A missile brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, killing all its 298 passengers and crew. Investigators found that a missile was launched from territory controlled by pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.

The crash led to calls for better international methods for sharing information about dangerous conflict areas to prevent similar tragedies. But many industry experts say more improvements are still needed.

The issue was recently discussed at a conference of the International Air Transport Association in Seoul, the South Korean capital.

Gilberto Lopez-Meyer is the association’s Senior Vice President for Safety and Flight Operations. He told the Reuters news agency there is a clear need for better ways to collect and share information about air space over conflict areas.

Lopez-Meyer noted that currently, airline companies often use different information to judge which areas present the greatest flying risks. He added that airlines spend millions of dollars a year on extra fuel to fly around parts of the Middle East and Africa to avoid conflict areas.

Some carriers choose to fly over war-torn countries, while others do not. This was the case at the time of the MH17 crash. In addition to Malaysia Airlines, Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines were also flying aircraft over eastern Ukraine. But British Airways and Air France had avoided the area.

Izham Ismail is the head of Malaysia Airlines. He told Reuters the downing of MH17 led his company to approve new safety measures. “The wound is still here in the whole organization and we take safety very seriously,” he said.

OSCE members watch as recovery workers in rebel-controlled eastern Ukraine load debris from the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, in Hrabove, Ukraine, Nov. 16, 2014.
OSCE members watch as recovery workers in rebel-controlled eastern Ukraine load debris from the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, in Hrabove, Ukraine, Nov. 16, 2014.

After the MH17 incident, the airline industry backed creation of a United Nations-supported website. The site was supposed to provide the latest information on conflict zones to help carriers. But it later closed because of disputes among nations over how the information should be shared. When this happened, some airlines did not know where to turn for help.

Mark Zee is the founder of OpsGroup, which launched a free website, called Safe Airspace, to provide guidance to airlines after MH17. “For the big 50 airlines, they have the resources to dedicate a security department to the job,” Zee said.

“For everyone else - and that is thousands of operators - I can tell you that many of them have a really hard time making a decent risk assessment. I see it in the emails we get every day.”

One example is Qatar Airways, which recently decided to send its aircraft over Syria. Disputes between Qatar and some of its neighbors had blocked the airline from using other nations’ airspace. Qatar Airways’ chief Akbar al-Baker said the company would not fly anywhere that is not safe.

The United States and other countries ban their airlines from flying over Syrian airspace because of safety risks, notes a website operated by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency.

The Dutch Safety Board led the investigation into the downing of the Malaysia Airlines plane. In a report in February, the group said the resources available to airlines often communicate changing threat levels too slowly to be useful.

Mohammed Aziz is a former Lebanese air accident investigator. He now works with Aviation Strategies International, a private company which provides assistance to airlines.

“I think after MH17 people became more aware of the problem. They seek information,” Aziz said. “The problem is before they weren’t seeking information. They were waiting for information to come their way.”

The U.N.-assisted International Civil Aviation Organization has approved guidelines for air traffic service officials to report conflict dangers to pilots. But those rules are not set to take effect until November 2020.

I’m Bryan Lynn.

Jamie Freed and Allison Lampert reported this story for Reuters. Bryan Lynn adapted the story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

dedicate v. to give most of your energy and time to something

decent adj. of a satisfactory quality or level

assessmentn. a judgement about the quality, size, value, etc. of something

resource – n. a supply of materials, workers or money available to help a person or organization operate effectively

awareadj. to know about something

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