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‘Air India flew 33 times over Ukraine in seven days prior to MH17 incident’

Air India reportedly dismissed all claims that its aircraft was on the same flight path as MH17.

Kabir Taneja  New Delhi | 26th Jul 2014

Air India flight AI113 and Singapore Airlines jet SQ351 were seen within 25 kilometers from the trajectory of the missile thought to have shot down MH17 | Image courtesy: Flightradar24

week after the shocking shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 on the Ukraine-Russia border, which killed 298 passengers and crew, questions are being raised over airlines flying over active war zones, even when major aviation regulators such as America's Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have released advisories against such operations.

India's government operated Air India has now found itself in middle of a controversy on whether its flights were overflying the conflict zone regions of Ukraine, a route popular with airlines flying from India to Europe and beyond.

Since the MH17 crash, technology available publicly via the internet has brought data of flights flying over war zones such as Ukraine and Syria to public eye. Flightradar24, a flight tracking service based out of Stockholm, Sweden, has since the incident provided real time data of flights accessing airspace over conflict regions.

Soon after the news of MH17 crashing near the border of eastern Ukraine and Russia, a snapshot of the Flightradar24 map over Ukrainian airspace from just before MH17 disappeared showed that two other civilian jets, one belonging to Singapore Airlines and the other to Air India, were within kilometres from the missile's trajectory which is thought to have shot down the Malaysian airliner.

The Air India flight in question was AI113, a Boeing 787 Dreamliner flying from New Delhi to Birmingham in the United Kingdom. Following the revelation of such data, on 20 July, Air India reportedly dismissed all claims that its aircraft was on the same flight path as MH17.

"We have stopped flying over the conflict zone to the north of Ukraine for the past three months. After the fresh DGCA directive (two days ago), we have completely stopped operating on the Ukrainian airspace," an official of the airline was quoted as saying in a report by Press Trust of India.

Another report dated 19 July, which was then seemingly deleted but whose cached versions are still accessible via Google, an Air India official was quoted as saying: "The Ukraine ATC requested AI113 to contact MH17 because it had disappeared from their radar. It was only after the AI pilot landed in Birmingham did he realise his close shave."

This conflict of information is refuted by Flightradar24, whose data showed the exact position of the Air India flight. The service uses a combination of Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), Multilateration (MLAT), using Time Difference of Arrival (TDOA) method and other systems to create real time flight tracking information.

Flightradar24 has stood by its data on AI113, even as India's civil aviation authorities and Air India seem to try and control the information on the exact flight path of the plane. In a tweet posted on 18 July, Flightradar24 said: "We will not point out any airlines, but an airline concerned about its safety should not lie to customers." The company confirmed to The Sunday Guardian that this was pointed, amongst others, towards Air India which had refuted claims that its aircraft flew over troubled Ukrainian airspace.

"Yes, we are 100% sure that AI113 was flying over the conflict area in Ukraine," said Mikael Robertsson of Flightradar24. "It was about 25 km away from MH17. In total 33 Air India flights have flown over the conflict area the seven days before the crash." According to information available, the flight routes above eastern Ukraine were cleared by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) for use. Certain reports suggest that the airspace below 25,000 feet was at times closed by Ukrainian authorities, and two other aircraft (cargo and military) were shot down by pro-Russia rebels in the region before (two more have been reportedly shot down since). Experts believe the Malaysian jet was mistaken for a Ukrainian cargo or military aircraft and attacked. The Malaysian airliner was known to be flying at FL330, or 33,000 feet.

This incident, other than sparking debate on the potential geo-political ramifications for both Ukraine and Russia, has also brought into debate global aviation policies on how airlines decide what air routes are safe or not. While many country specific aviation regulators release advisories on routes that an airline should avoid, the onus is on the airline itself to take a decision on whether it should pay heed to the advisory or not. The Indian Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) had asked Jet Airways and Air India to stop using Ukrainian airspace hours after the MH17 incident.

"Every airline has a security team and a Network Control Centre which monitors real time movement of all the flights in the network," explains a senior routes executive for a major airline in the Middle East, who did not wish to be identified.

"In a scenario when ICAO has cleared a particular route for operation, the airline then does its own assessment to see if it is feasible to operate that route. Once such a route is active, the local embassy, airline and some government officers are in constant touch, assessing week by week, or if required, day to day movements of the country politically to see if it poses any threat to the airline. If it does, flights are called off immediately."

Since the MH17 incident, Flightradar24 has already pointed out more discrepancies of airlines flying over dangerous airspace. The service posted about a Malaysian Airlines flight overflying Syria only a few days after the shooting down of MH17. Even though Flightradar24 does not have information over how many or which airlines continue to fly over conflict zones, it reinstates the fact that airlines are not breaking any laws in doing so.

"Different airspaces may be closed for different airlines depending on nationality. We don't have such information. I don't think Malaysian is violating any rules or regulations. FAA strongly advises not to fly over Syria, but it's not forbidden," explains Robertsson.

New technology in hands of anyone and everyone with access to internet and smart phones is changing how air traffic is monitored. No more are Air Traffic Controllers the only people able to see positioning of civil airliners, making investigations and availability of information in incidents such as the one of MH17 easier, and holding airlines culpable for choosing to fly over conflict regions. In fact, another social media based service, Bellingcat, has even produced crowd-sourced pictures and videos of possible military hardware on ground in eastern Ukraine, which could have possibly taken down MH17.

"The new technologies sure give us great opportunity to monitor air traffic that was not possible 10 years ago," said Robertsson.

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