Loss of Flight 17 over Ukraine

By ThinkReliability Staff

On July 17, 2014, Malaysian Airlines flight 17 was shot down 33,000′ above Ukraine by a surface-to-air missile.   The issue can be looked at in a Cause Map, or visual root cause analysis. Clearly the primary impact to the goals in this case was the death of all 298 passengers and crew members on the plane. Next the Cause Map is built by developing the cause-and-effect relationships by asking “Why” questions.

While there are multiple issues that can be discussed related to why the missile was fired at the plane, the solutions that would result in missiles not being fired are outside the sphere of influence of most (if not all) of us. Focusing on the solutions that are within the sphere of influence of airlines, regulatory bodies, and even individual passengers allows the most effective use of time.

For this reason, we will focus on why the plane was in the area. The route that planes take is generally determined by wind, weather and congestion. There are also areas where airspace is restricted. At the time Flight 17 flew over Ukraine, the restricted airspace over the area ended at 32,000′. Just a week prior a military transport plane was shot down at 21,000′. However, the primary concern at the time was shoulder-fired missiles which generally have a range much less than 32,000′.

Beyond the political questions of what to do about an unprovoked attack on a commercial airline, airlines, their regulatory bodies, and even passengers are trying to determine how they can stay safe while flying near or through one of the 41 currently designated “kinetic conflicts” (essentially areas where people are shooting at each other, causing a potential risk to planes, though generally not those flying at typical levels of commercial airliners).

Regulatory bodies, including the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO, the air-safety arm of the United Nations), are now looking at “the respective roles of states, airlines and international organizations for assessing the risk of airspace affected by armed conflict.” Currently each government determines the risk and whether airspace should be restricted. Air-safety experts say Ukraine’s restrictions weren’t unusual. Says air-safety consultant John Cox, “There has never been an airliner shot down from a surface-to-air missile at this kind of altitude. The threat has always been a shoulder-fired missile from insurgents.”

Individual airlines are also considering what they can do to reduce their risk. Some airlines are even considering antimissile devices, which use laser beams to draw heat-seeking missiles away from the plane itself. However, these are only effective against shoulder-fired heat-seeking missiles, not the type of missile that brought down flight 17. While many countries use these types of protection for their military planes, only Israel has required their use on commercial airliners.

For individual passengers who are concerned about the route their plane may be taking, flight-tracking services will allow them to see the flight paths of the most recent flights. However, because of gaps in coverage, flight paths over certain areas (such as over North Korea) may not be accurate. Airlines are being pressured to release their typical flight paths.

Even with the attack on flight 17 and the loss of two other planes (TransAsia Airways 222 and Air Algerie flight 5017 crashed on July 23 and July 24th, respectively, both in remote areas in poor weather), industry experts assure passengers that flying is still safe and that crashes are declining worldwide. The aviation accident rate is 2.8 per one million departures, the lowest since ICAO started tracking numbers. So far in 2014 there have been 70 commercial-plane crashes compared to 81 for the comparable period last year. (There were a total of 90 commercial flight crashes in 2013, compared to 99 in 2012 and 118 in 2011.) According to director of safety at aviation consultancy Ascend, “Having three accidents together doesn’t tell you anything about safety. It’s about the long-term trend. Airline safety is improving, and it is generally improving faster than the industry is expanding.”

To view the outline, Cause Map, and solutions, please click on “Download PDF” above. Read about more aviation safety incidents:

Malaysian Airlines Flight 370

Air Traffic Control system confusion affects hundreds of flights

Smoke at FAA facility results in flight disruptions

Asiana flight 214