EU urges sharing intelligence to avert disasters for airliners

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BRUSSELS — Responding to the downing of a Malaysian passenger jet over eastern Ukraine in July, Europe’s top aviation safety agency urged national governments Wednesday to share intelligence data with aviation authorities to better enable international regulators and airlines to assess the risks of flying over conflict zones.

“We have to find a more fluid system for sharing vital safety information,” Patrick Ky, executive director of the European Aviation Safety Agency, told members of the European Parliament’s transportation committee. “We believe there should be a requirement to establish, in Europe, an alert system that covers all the components of the aviation community, including the appropriate sharing of appropriate information and the involvement of military intelligence.”

The call for greater coordination comes less than two months after the crash of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200, which showed that the standard procedures used by aviation authorities and airline flight planners to protect passenger planes over the war zone in eastern Ukraine were catastrophically inadequate.

Flight 17, flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, was shot down July 17 over territory controlled by pro-Russian rebels, killing all 298 people on board. The United States and Ukraine have accused the separatists of downing the plane with a powerful surface-to-air missile provided by the Russian military. Moscow has publicly denied those claims, and some Russian officials have gone so far as to suggest that the plane was brought down by the Ukrainian military.

A preliminary report by the Dutch Safety Board, which has been charged with investigating the crash, is expected to be published as early as Friday. While continued fighting near the crash zone has severely limited investigators’ access to the wreckage, safety experts said they hoped that data from the plane’s flight recorders, as well as satellite and other imagery, would shed light on the type of missile that struck the jet and the missile’s provenance.

In an interview after the hearing, Mr. Ky said the goal of the safety agency was to establish a protocol for sharing intelligence gathered by EU member states that would enable it to quickly evaluate the credibility of airspace safety assessments provided by countries affected by armed conflict.

The details of those evaluations need not be made public, he said, but the agency would publish a formal bulletin advising airlines and passengers of the security threat level, from low to high. If the agency’s advice contradicted a country’s official assessment, airlines that still chose to fly routes deemed potentially dangerous would be required to justify their decision to the agency and inform passengers of that choice. (The European Aviation Safety Agency, unlike the Federal Aviation Administration in the United States, does not have authority to ban airlines from flying certain routes.But individual European governments can issue such bans for carriers under their national jurisdictions.)

Mr. Ky said several EU member nations had already expressed a willingness to share limited amounts of civilian and military intelligence for air safety purposes. The agency plans to meet this week with military representatives of the bloc’s nascent diplomatic corps, the External Action Service, with an eye toward drafting a more concrete proposal before year’s end.

The proposal by the European Aviation Safety Agency, which shares responsibility for safe flight operations with the European Union’s 28 member states, was endorsed at the hearing by representatives of the European Commission, the executive arm of the bloc, as well as of Eurocontrol, the Brussels-based agency charged with coordinating air traffic across the region.

The plane was downed while flying at a cruising altitude of around 33,000 feet. Days earlier, authorities in Ukraine had barred flights below 32,000 feet after a Ukrainian military cargo plane was destroyed by a missile at 21,000 feet. Russia introduced similar restrictions on its side of the border hours before Flight 17 took off from Amsterdam.

Weapons analysts have said the successful attack on the cargo plane indicated the presence of powerful surface-to-air missiles capable of striking commercial jets flying at standard cruising altitudes. European legislators at the hearing Wednesday expressed consternation as to why Ukrainian officials did not close the airspace to civilian air traffic, and why international safety regulators appeared not to have questioned Ukraine’s assessment of the threat to passenger traffic.

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