Skip to main content

Rescue workers at the site of the Ukraine International Airlines crash on the outskirts of Tehran on Jan. 8, 2020.ARASH KHAMOOSHI/The New York Times News Service

The head of an investigation into the downing of a Malaysian passenger jet six years ago says any probe into last week’s missile strike that destroyed a Ukraine International Airlines plane should look into why commercial airliners were still flying into and out of Tehran on a night of intense military activity in the region.

Vasil Vovk, the deputy head of Ukraine’s SBU security service, led Ukraine’s investigation into the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which was hit by a missile in 2014 as it flew over an area controlled by Russian-backed separatists. He told The Globe and Mail that his team found that airlines rely heavily on safety advice provided to them by the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO. Mr. Vovk said he believes ICAO failed in its duties in 2014, and again on Jan. 8 when Flight 752 was shot down shortly after taking off from Tehran.

Nearly 500 people are dead as a result of the two disasters.

Mr. Vovk said he experienced a sense of “déjà vu” last week when he heard that Flight 752 had been shot down by Iranian anti-aircraft forces that were on high alert for possible U.S. military action. Just more than three hours earlier, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard had launched a barrage of missiles at U.S. military targets in neighbouring Iraq.

Iran has admitted to making a “disastrous mistake” in shooting down the plane. All 176 passengers, including 57 Canadians, were killed.

In the cases of both Flight 17 and Flight 752, Mr. Vovk believes ICAO should have advised the involved countries to close their airspace – and warned commercial airliners to find alternative routes. While the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority warned American airline companies to avoid the airspace over Iran and Iraq starting Jan. 7, UIA and other international carriers continued to operate as usual.

“This organization should be held responsible,” Mr. Vovk, who is now retired from the SBU, said in an interview in Kyiv. “If ICAO had told us to close our airspace [over eastern Ukraine in 2014], we would have done so immediately. If this international organization had recommended to stop flying over Iranian territory [last week], UIA would never have sent a flight there.”

The Netherlands, which had the largest number of citizens on board, eventually took the lead in the Flight 17 investigation. That probe concluded that separatists had shot the plane down using a Buk anti-aircraft system provided by Russia. Three Russian citizens and one Ukrainian have been charged with the murders of all 298 people on board.

A different Russian-made system, the Tor M-1, reportedly was used to shoot down Flight 752. The Iranian military says the plane had been mistaken for a U.S. cruise missile.

Mr. Vovk said he hoped Canada – as the country with the second-largest number of nationals on board Flight 752, after Iran – would take a leading role in the new investigation and put some of the focus on ICAO. “If I had the ability to start a criminal investigation, I would open one into this organization.”

Anthony Philbin, ICAO’s head of communications, said it was the responsibility of ICAO’s 191 member states – not the agency itself – to decide when to close their airspace. He said the organization rarely issued warnings and “normally only when there is a complete command and control breakdown or other rare and extenuating factor which would prevent the sovereign nation state in control of the airspace in question from doing so itself.”

However, The Globe found a template on ICAO’s website that seemed to have been specifically created to issue warnings to airlines operating over conflict zones. “The [AGENCY] has warned airlines and regulators of a 'significant risk’ to civil aircraft operating through [STATE W] airspace.

“Due to ongoing insurgent activity, operators of civil aircraft should be aware of the risk to flight operations safety in [STATE W region] deriving from possible use of small-arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and anti-aircraft fire, including shoulder-fired man-portable air-defence sytems,” reads the template, which was created in December, 2014, five months after the Flight 17 disaster.

In 2015, ICAO created a new “conflict-zone repository” that was supposed to serve as a central database for information about active conflicts on the ground. The effort was discontinued just two years later, however, because member countries – in some cases reticent to share classified intelligence – were making little use of it.

“There is always more to learn from and improve upon when it comes to the safety and security of civilian flight. ICAO has updated and developed numerous policies, procedures, and guidelines for states and operators in this area since the [Flight] 17 event occurred,” Mr. Philbin wrote in an e-mail. “As we learn more about this latest event, relevant lessons will certainly inform future work to enhance this guidance further and to improve government and operator awareness of their associated responsibilities.”

In a Saturday news conference, Yevhenii Dykhne, the president of Ukraine International Airlines, said that – despite Iran having fired rockets at U.S. targets earlier that morning – the plane left Imam Khomeini International Airport at 6:12 a.m., the pilots seeing no reason not to fly to Kyiv as scheduled.

“The pilots did not know anything and they could not know, because there were no warnings,” he said. “The airport was working as usual. Knowing about who shoots where is not the business of civilian pilots.”

Eight other civilian planes departed Tehran between the time Iran’s Revolutionary Guards launched their attack on U.S. bases in Iraq and when Flight 752 departed that morning. Two flights were cancelled immediately after the Ukrainian aircraft was shot out of the sky, but the airport resumed normal activity less than two hours later.

Ihor Sosnovsky, UIA’s vice-president in charge of flight operations, said Iran should have closed its airspace as soon as it began its military activities.

“They were being completely irresponsible,” he told the news conference. “If you are playing war, you can play it as much as you want. But all around are normal people who have to be protected. They had to close the airport if they were shooting somewhere from some place. They were obliged to. And then they can shoot as much as they want.”