Weighing the security fallout from the downing of MH17

Former FAA security chief sees incident driving more of a political solution than a technical one

As Ukrainian and Russian officials continue to play the blame game, U.S. intelligence sources have confirmed that Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which took off from Amsterdam in route to Kuala Lumpur on Thursday, was shot out of the sky by a surface-to-air missile. According to a report from CNN, an analysis of the incident concluded that the missile was likely fired by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. Nearly 300 people were onboard the Boeing 777 when it was downed.

While much of the immediate attention in the aftermath of this tragedy will focus on the recovery efforts and determining exactly who was responsible for firing the missile in question, there will also be longer term implications of incident on the aviation security community as a whole. Billie Vincent, a former director of civil aviation security for the Federal Aviation Administration and author of the book, "Bombers, Hijackers, Body Scanners, and Jihadists," said that in retrospect, air traffic should have been rerouted around this region. However, he said this tragedy, like so many others in aviation, was really the result of several different events.

“In this case, this airplane was on a route north of where they would normally fly through Ukraine. Of course, they couldn’t fly over Crimea because that had been prohibited airspace, but apparently it was flying 100 to 200 miles north of where it normally would have because of thunderstorms,” explained Vincent, who now serves as president and CEO of consulting firm Aerospace Services International (ASI). “From the reports I’ve heard… there were a number of other airplanes in route through the area.”

In the wake of MH17 being shot down, the FAA on Thursday issued an order prohibiting U.S. airlines from flying over eastern Ukraine. The agency said that carriers have voluntarily agreed not to operate in the airspace near the Russia-Ukraine border.  The order is an expansion of the one it previously issued in April barring flights over the Crimean region of Ukraine over concerns related to air traffic control in the area. The International Civil Aviation Organization, a branch of the United Nations, also recently issued a warning to airlines to avoid the area. The downing of MH17 occurred outside of this area.

“ICAO recently issued a State letter advising States and their air operators of a potentially unsafe situation arising from the presence of more than one air traffic services provider in the Simferopol Flight Information Region (FIR). The loss of MH17 occurred outside of the Simferopol FIR and ICAO stands ready to support the accident investigation upon request,” the ICAO said in a statement.

While it is unlikely that MH17 was targeted intentionally, anytime you have a conflict of this magnitude there is always a threat present to passenger aircraft in the area. In fact, over the past several weeks, the pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine experienced success in shooting down a military transport plane and a fighter jet.   

“To the person that has a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” said Vincent. “Any separatists in possession of that type of missile technology, they had a hammer and every airplane coming through the route toward them probably looked like a military threat. And while civilian airliners always have a unique and distinct transponder code, when you put something in the hands of a militant group that has the capability of operating a sophisticated anti-aircraft missile system, they don’t necessarily have the knowledge or the inclination to go to great lengths to distinguish what they’re going to be shooting at. It was obvious that this airplane was a civil plane in the worldwide aviation and air traffic control network, but the question is would these separatists have the sophistication and knowledge of the overall aviation system?”

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