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Ukraine airline alert failed to give complete account of danger

WASHINGTON — Ukraine's alert to airlines three days before a Malaysian Air passenger jet was shot down described a "restricted" area without noting fighting on the ground or evidence that rebels had surface-to-air missiles.

The July 14 Notice to Airmen, known as a NOTAM, also made no mention of the Russian-backed rebels downing a Ukrainian military aircraft in the vicinity that day, according to a copy of the alert filed with European regulators.

Had Ukraine provided a more thorough accounting of dangers, commercial airlines may have avoided the region, said Thomas Haueter, the retired chief of aviation accident investigations at the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, said in an interview. Without complete information, airlines are often leaving safety to guesswork.

"There was no background information or detail as to what the nature of the threat was," Haueter said. "If the airlines had known the nature of the threat and how serious it was, that could have influenced their decision to fly in the area."

As a United Nations-led task force retreats for six to eight weeks to work on ideas for addressing the lapses in security that contributed to the July 17 Malaysian Air incident, the quality and lack of security disclosure by countries is emerging as a main obstacle.

It wasn't until after Malaysian Air Flight 17 was downed while flying on an allowed route, 1,000 feet (305 meters) above the prohibited zone, that the airspace over the fighting was closed. The U.S. has said that a surface-to-air missile probably fired from an area controlled by rebels receiving assistance from Russia struck the plane.

Ukraine Deputy Prime Minister Volodymyr Hroisman disputed accusations that his country didn't provide airlines with all the necessary information to ensure safe passage.

"All were doing their job within their duties and capabilities," Hroisman said in an interview. "I have not any grounds to confirm what you have said. Such experts' comments have nothing common with reality."

The UN's International Civil Aviation Organization met in Montreal Tuesday to discuss how to better notify airlines about hazards in conflict zones. The agency, which develops standards and recommended practices, is creating a task force to examine how flight restrictions are imposed and how airlines are notified of threats.

"Airlines need clear and accurate information on which to base operational decisions, on where and when it is safe to fly," Tony Tyler, chief executive officer of the International Air Transport Association, said at the ICAO meeting.

The UN group's members expressed concern over whether nations would cooperate. When asked about what power ICAO has to convince nations to be more vigilant, the organization's president, Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu, responded: "Not much."

"We depend on the free will of the states," Aliu said.

Countries often have an incentive to minimize the potential risks because they rely on revenue from airline air-traffic fees or don't want raise concerns that may harm their economies, said Robert Mann, a Port Washington, New York-based aviation consultant and former airline executive.

"It's highly unlikely that you'll ever get a candid or complete assessment of what the risks are," he said in an interview.

Ukraine's July 14 NOTAM closed airspace along the Russian border as high as 32,000 feet, saying only that there was a temporary "restricted area" without elaborating.

Notices about conflict zones often include specific information about possible hazards. A Nov. 29 U.S. Federal Aviation Administration notice urging caution while flying over Syria warned about "surface to air missile firings, as well as military activity in the vicinity of airfields."

The Ukrainian notice was issued after a military An-26 transport plane was shot down the same day. The plane was flying at about 21,000 feet when it was hit by a missile fired by rebels, according to the country's Defense Ministry.

That's out of range of less sophisticated shoulder-fired missiles used for lower altitude targets and indicates that the rebels had weapons capable of reaching altitudes where airliners cruise above 30,000 feet, Jim O'Halloran, an editor at IHS Jane's, who oversees coverage of weapons systems, said in an interview.

"If you are going to start taking out aircraft from 20,000 feet upwards, you need a bloody good system to do that," O'Halloran said.

The Ukrainian NOTAM raised previous flight restrictions from 26,000 feet in the area of eastern Ukraine to 32,000 feet, according to the notice posted on the website of Eurocontrol, which helps coordinate air traffic among European nations.

The Malaysian Air flight was hit while flying at 33,000 feet. All 298 people aboard were killed.

Dutch aviation accident investigators leading the probe into Flight 17 are examining the decision to fly the route, according to a July 25 statement.

While they stopped short of commenting on Ukraine's actions prior to the July 17 incident, aviation leaders attending the meeting Tuesday at ICAO's headquarters said the system had failed the airline industry.

Even though the incident revealed a gap, the system has worked well most of the time, Tyler said.

Countries around the world issue thousands of NOTAMs a year, warning of hazards ranging from volcanoes to defective airport equipment. Areas over war zones or hostile nations are occasionally closed to air traffic, such as above North Korea.

Some nations don't have the "capabilities or willingness" to provide the latest intelligence on potential risks to aircraft, Angela Gittens, director general of Airports Council International representing large airports, said at the meeting.

Reported with assistance from Kateryna Choursina and Volodymyr Verbyany in Kiev.

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