Commercial aviation's tragic centenary year highlights new threats

Reuters News
Posted: Dec 14, 2014 10:28 AM

By Tim Hepher and Victoria Bryan

GENEVA (Reuters) - Airlines need co-operation from governments to address security threats raised by aviation disasters this year, but would like to see a quicker relaxation of economic controls, Tony Tyler, head of the International Air Transport Association, said.

The former Cathay Pacific boss, who represents a majority of the world's airlines, reflected on a turbulent centenary year for commercial aviation, darkened by the disappearance of a Malaysian airliner, the downing of another and the Ebola crisis.

IATA has called for new international controls on weapons such as the missile suspected of downing MH17 over Ukraine in July, but has had mixed results in trying to forge proposals for better aircraft tracking after the mysterious loss of MH370 in March.

IATA chaired an industry task force that last week proposed a framework for improving aircraft tracking, but did not win support from its board of airline CEOs for a 12-month deadline.

"Everybody agrees that we have to improve tracking," Tyler told Reuters in an interview, but added, "We have to recognize that airlines have varying capabilities."

Some exceeded the checklist agreed in a task force report issued last week, but others would struggle to make the business cost for retro-fitting aircraft near their retirement, he said.

The list is however expected to pave the way for regulation.

Asked whether IATA could include tracking in its own system of safety scrutiny of its member airlines, Tyler said, "I think as time goes on, it's something that will get considered".

The head of Emirates airline has called tracking a "red herring" and has raised questions over whether governments have revealed all they know about the fate of the missing jet.

"Everything that is known should be in the public domain. If anyone has any information, they should come out with it," Tyler said.

IATA is also pressing for a system of sharing of intelligence information about threats to air traffic following the downing of Malaysian flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine.

"We are all still angry about what's going on even now, in terms of the access by investigators to the site, the debris, the way the victims and their remains have been treated: it's outrageous," Tyler said.

"Clearly airlines should be given the information they need to make proper risk assessment."

World Health Organization officials have meanwhile urged airlines that cut services to Ebola-affected areas of West Africa to restore them, saying the risks are minimal.


This year's safety and health worries cast a shadow over the 70th anniversary last week of the Chicago Convention, which set out rules for air travel and led to the creation of a UN aviation agency, the International Civil Aviation Organization.

While the events of 2014 have highlighted some unforeseen risks, IATA says aviation remains the safest form of travel.

IATA celebrates its own 70th anniversary next year. Its annual summits are packed with 250 airlines, but Tyler agreed the days are gone when every country needed its own airline.

Analysts say the industry is fragmented in part because of the way it is regulated, with each nation protecting its skies.

"At every aviation conference, everyone agrees market access controls and ownership restrictions are a bad idea and should be done away with and 'let's go to global open skies'," Tyler said.

"But it doesn't happen, and I can only think that is because ... governments stifle it. That for all their high intentions, governments quite like it the way it is or at least can't think of a system they'd prefer to have.

"I think there'll be more of the same for the next 100 years of aviation: progressive liberalization, increasing liberalization, but no 'big bang' or overnight change."

IATA says air fares will fall 5.1 percent next year because of the recent sharp drop in oil prices.

Tyler said airlines would also use the windfall to build up their balance sheets but would not stop investing in new jets.

(Editing by Rosalind Russell)