Barely a week ago, the air industry believed it was closing in on the holy grail of zero annual fatal commercial passenger jet accidents. That thought has been turned on its head with 452 people being killed in three incidents, the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 most prominent. Storms played a part in the other two, in Taiwan and Mali. Questions are now being raised about the wisdom of flying over conflict zones and taking to the skies in bad weather.
Excluding Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 - the cause of its disappearance remains unknown - there had been only one fatal crash in the first half of this year, involving the deaths of 18 people in Nepal. That accident occurred during a storm, as did Wednesday's involving a TransAsia Airline plane on the Taiwanese resort island of Penghu, and on Thursday with an Air Algerie flight carrying 116 passengers and crew. Flight MH17 has highlighted a less obvious, but increasingly troublesome, concern. Flying over combat zones had previously been considered safe as long as planes were beyond the reach of the weapons being used below. The missile that brought the plane down over eastern Ukraine from 10,000 metres, killing all 298 people on board, has prompted calls for a review of regulations.
Safety systems often result from correcting failings. MH17 was following rules, even though some airlines had decided to avoid the route. While there are international standards for air navigation, flight inspections, border crossings, infrastructure and accident investigations, co-ordination of air safety over conflict areas and during inclement weather is fragmented. Guidelines and an index, much like those used by governments to warn nationals of overseas trouble spots, would perhaps go some way to making an often arbitrary system more structured.
The US Federal Aviation Administration issues notices to American-registered pilots of potential hazards along a flight route. While other airlines are not obliged to follow them when outside American air space, they are often adopted or used as guidelines. Ultimately, though, countries over which flights are being flown have to provide accurate and timely information and final decisions rest with airlines and pilots.
This system has its flaws, as the incidents over the past nine days show. Aviation agencies and carriers should hold an international meeting to review and improve procedures and regulations. Air safety has improved vastly over the years, but it is clear risk has still to be minimised.