in Air Transport / Features

Conflicting opinions

Posted 10 August 2017 · Add Comment

African countries could be affected by the European Union's (EU) new joined up approach to conflict zone assessment, which could see airlines banned from flying to, from, or over riskier areas. Victoria Moores reports.

Europe is working to harmonise its intelligence-gathering to better-assess risks to civil aircraft.
Under the plan, the EU is considering giving the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) new powers to avoid a repeat of the missile attack on Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in 2014 over eastern Ukraine, which killed 298 people.
“Already, before the downing of MH17, some airlines did not want to fly over eastern Ukraine as a result of information provided from the intelligence services of the US, France and UK, among others,” European Parliament Member (MEP) Matthijs Van Miltenburg said. “It was claimed that this information was only shared with their corresponding national airlines.”
Information-sharing improvements were needed and the EU has since worked to create a common European risk and alerting system, using pooled conflict-zone intelligence from EU member states and their allies. This data is then communicated to airlines, via EASA, to improve aviation safety.
The timing is interesting, because EASA’s powers are under review and could be extended to include conflict-zone mandates.
“There are some areas where we know there is conflict and a threat. The question about those areas is, if somebody knows something, how do we share this information and make it available to all airspace users,” EASA executive director Patrick Ky said.
Another question is how to communicate breaking alerts, which may not have time to go through the intelligence review process. Ky gave the example of Cruise missiles that were launched from a Russian ship in the Caspian Sea in 2016, overflying Iran, targeting Syria. EASA was alerted by commercial airline pilots operating in the area and had to react within hours. “The trajectory of those missiles basically crossed the trajectory of [civil] aircraft, but not at the same altitude. For this, we need a rapid-alert system,” Ky said.
However, the biggest sticking point is whether the safety advice should be binding, or simply a recommendation. Opinions are divided. The European Commission and EASA both want it to be mandatory, but the European Council disagrees.
“We are an agency which is used to binding measures in the field of airworthiness,” Ky said, stressing that some countries need binding measures before they can take action. “We never take a binding measure without looking at the impact. We do that if there is no other possibility and only after consultation with all the stakeholders. Sometimes we need exactly the same instruction going to all the airlines.”
Conversely, if the advice was non-mandatory, one airline could assess the information and decide it was safe to fly when others have decided against it. This is unfair and could distort the market, Ky said.
“The appetite for risk differs by airline, but what about the passengers’ risk appetite? They [the airline] takes a risk and, without knowing it, their passengers are taking it as well. It is a difficult issue, but I think the fundamental question we need to deal with is protecting passengers,” Ky said.
Representing the views of the European Parliament, MEP Marian-Jean Marinescu said passengers place themselves in the hands of their airlines, trusting that safety concerns have been managed. However, he argued a recommendation-based system could bring passenger safety down to luck in choosing the right airline.
“Some companies from the same state could be flying and some going around [the conflict zone]. Why, when they have the same information? A company is not free [impartial] because cost is a problem for airlines. There should be one entity [overseeing this], which is independent and I think that should be EASA,” Marinescu said.
He went on to argue against altitude restrictions, saying that if the first 10,000 feet are unsafe, then higher altitudes should also be closed. Countries, he said, have a vested interest in keeping their airspace open, rather than closing it as a precaution.
But what about the airlines themselves? KLM head of flight operations, Bart de Vries, said communication has improved since MH17, but he added: “It is very important that we don’t forget that we already have a system, globally, in aviation. It is up to each and every individual state to close their airspace when it is not safe to fly there. When something fails, we should go to the core of the problem and try to solve that. If a state does not close its airspace when it should be closed, we should address that state immediately and ask it to take action.”
De Vries agreed that the world is imperfect, so extra action is needed, and EASA is well equipped to distribute the information. But he disagreed about the conflict zone advice being binding, arguing that intelligence-gathering needed to be solid first and that airlines and pilots successfully make their own risk assessments every single day. “We are the safest mode of transport on this, unless you count elevators,” he said. “It is us that must make determinations about whether a risk is acceptable or not, within the bandwidth of the threat, and I hope we continue down this path.”
Finally, he highlighted the difference between a risk and a threat. “A threat is not yet a risk. There is threat everywhere. If you overfly the Netherlands there is a threat, because the Netherlands has a navy and an air force and they are perfectly capable of shooting down aircraft. However they will not, because they have no interest in doing so and they have very robust mechanisms in place to prevent anything like that from happening, so the risk is deemed to be low.”
Once the threat and risk level have been established, an airline can work out any operational restrictions, accounting for factors like lower altitudes in the event of an engine failure. “There is no one size fits all approach to this issue; it has to be customised towards the airline, towards the country the airline is coming from and towards the destinations the airline is flying to. We should not fix the end of the process before we have fixed the beginning of the process,” he said.
Previously, airlines relied on their own governments to share risk information that was not typically freely available. The new system works by bringing together information from all of the EU member state intelligence and security services, as well as those from some associated non-EU states. This is fed into the EU Intelligence and Situation Centre, which came into being after the September 11 attacks on the USA in 2001, to collate intelligence.
External Action EU Intelligence and Situation Centre director Gerhard Conrad said: “The first myth is that intelligence and security services don’t share [information]; I can assure you they do – more than you think. Particularly EU intelligence services do share on a regular basis.”
The second myth is that the EU gathers its own covert intelligence. The bloc does not collect information directly, but on a voluntary basis member states regularly contribute completed – and sometimes edited – intelligence files on the situation in foreign countries, terrorist threats and the military situation in crisis zones.
“We are not receiving and processing operational intelligence – that means single pieces of intelligence – we are processing pre-analysed intelligence,” Conrad said. “Staff, seconded by [member state intelligence] services reach back into their services and come back with a pretty competent and detailed understanding, without revealing any sources or methods.”
The conflict zone initiative is a cooperation between the EU’s Directorate General for Migration and Home Affairs (DG HOME), the Directorate General for Mobility and Transport (DG MOVE), EASA and the intelligence services.
“We are able not to offer zero risk to airlines and passengers, but this is a considerable improvement in terms of a real analysis of where risk might exist in terms of overflight,” said DG HOME deputy director general Olivier Onidi, while also pushing for EASA to have binding powers. “If overflight zones are deemed to be high risk, then they are high risk to everyone.”
Onidi said a fully functioning system has been formed over two years’ work. “The end of the chain is what’s missing today. It just needs to be put in stone and formalised. There is no issue of the intelligence services not wanting to share information. The whole chain is working perfectly. The only thing that is missing on overflight is the nature of the recommendation [recommended or binding] and the voice of that recommendation.”
EASA is already issuing conflict zone alerts, but the body’s new powers still need to be finalised as it is not able to issue binding mandates in this area, or allowed to participate in the intelligence talks directly.
“The mechanism is starting to work, but it still needs to be improved because we – EASA – are not allowed to participate [in the talks]. This makes it very difficult for us, because later on we distribute the information, but without knowing all the background,” explained Ky. He added that the mechanisms and points of contact for the rapid alert system have been established, but there have not been any major events to live test the system.
If any country is an expert in aviation security, it is Israel. Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion hub airport has come under rocket fire several times over the recent years. Speaking at the European Parliament hearing, Civil Aviation Authority of Israel (CAAI) deputy director, General Gad Regev, summed the feelings of all the bodies involved. “We hope this [set of precautions] remains a theoretical exercise only.”

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