Air Transportation Safety and Government Responsibility

The Dutch Safety Board yesterday released its final report into the cause of the crash of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in July 2014. That flight was on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lampur on July 17 when it crashed over eastern Ukraine, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew on board. The Dutch report confirmed earlier assertions by the United States and German governments that the flight was shot down by a Russian SA-11 BUK surface-to-air missile. Although the report does not confirm this, earlier evidence suggested that the missile system was under the control of pro-Russian separatists, who believed they were firing on a Ukrainian military transport. The Russian government has maintained it was not involved in the downing of the flight and released its own report pointing blame at the Ukrainian government.

The report also drew attention to the failure of the Ukrainian government to close airspace over the warzone, leading the Ukrainian government to defend its decision. A statement by the Ukrainian government asserted that “Nobody could imagine that such powerful facilities, such powerful equipment as the BUK [surface-to-air missile] could be used against a civilian aircraft.” The government had closed its airspace to flights operating below 7,900 meters (approximately 26,000 feet), but believed airspace above that altitude was safe. The decision to fly over conflict zones frequently rests with the individual carrier, but the Federal Aviation Administration has recently strengthened rules prohibiting US carries from flying over conflict zones in places like Libya, Iraq, Ukraine, Syria, and Somalia.

What do you think? Was Russia responsible for the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17? What responsibility, if any, do governments have to ensure that their airspace is protected? What responsibility, if any, do air carriers have to navigate safe air routes? And what lessons might we learn from the Dutch report?

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