By ANDY PASZTOR
Wall Street Journal
Aug. 7, 2014
WASHINGTON—U.S. pilot union leaders alleged that federal agencies failed to promptly assess and publicize potential threats posed to airliners flying over eastern Ukraine before the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 last month.
The criticism comes as several federal agencies have begun in recent days to look at possible improvements to the process for identifying and responding to significant threats to civilian aircraft, people familiar with the talks said.
It isn’t clear what changes are being discussed, and officials of the Federal Aviation Administration and intelligence agencies declined to comment on the discussions.
In a speech and separate interview on Wednesday, Lee Moak, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, asserted that U.S. and other governments didn’t properly fulfill their “duty to warn” airlines about the possible hazards of flying over areas where fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists raged on the ground.
Flight 17 was “a watershed event” and was “uniquely different” from other airliners brought down by hostile fire in earlier decades, Mr. Moak said in the interview. As a result of what occurred over Ukraine last month, he said, “the federal government has to come up with a dynamic process” to alert airlines about such future threats.
When intelligence is available about flying over hostile airspace, he added, “there has to be a timely process to notify” the industry, and then carriers have to more effectively share information between themselves.
In response to the shootdown, Mr. Moak said that labor and airlines representatives have joined forces to prod the FAA and U.S. intelligence community to streamline and accelerate the threat-assessment system.
Some of these people said U.S. national-security officials had intelligence about threats from Ukrainian rebels at least a day before Flight 17 went down.
Reiterating the FAA’s previous position, the agency said: “Before the Flight 17 incident there was no intelligence to indicate separatists intended to target civil aircraft.” The FAA also said: “Our first indication that they had an operable SA-11 [antiaircraft system] was July 17, the day of the crash.”
The FAA reiterated that “agency officials work with counterparts in the U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement communities on a continuous basis to monitor and analyze intelligence.” The agency said it provides guidance or imposes restrictions when it receives “specific and credible actionable intelligence of a threat.”
U.S. intelligence officials on Thursday largely echoed the FAA’s comments, and their own previous explanations, saying that the U.S. hadn’t confirmed the extent of the threat to airliners before Flight 17’s downing on July 17.
In a briefing for reporters last month, intelligence officials said they didn’t know for certain when the SA-11 system was transferred into eastern Ukraine.
There were U.S. suspicions that the Russian-backed separatists had an SA-11 when a Ukrainian military cargo plane traveling at a lower altitude was shot down on July 14, the officials said at the briefing. Some officials also have voiced suspicions that the separatists may have had possession of an inoperable SA-11.
However, the crash of Flight 17 was what confirmed the presence of an SA-11, they said.
Questions about what the FAA knew before the downing—and steps it subsequently took to impose temporary restrictions on U.S. airlines flying into Israel—were highlighted Thursday at the pilot union’s biggest annual safety conference.
Claudio Manno, the FAA’s assistant administrator for security and hazardous materials, told the conference on Thursday that the fate of Flight 17 “demonstrates that we are now faced with an increasing safety concern” about more-sophisticated weapons in the hands of both “state and nonstate actors.”
He said it is a concern that is emerging now, and “it’s a different dynamic” than dealing with traditional terrorist groups.
In the past year, he said, the FAA has issued, reviewed or updated more than a dozen notices or special regulations focused on airspace threats, including regarding Iraq, Libya, Mali, Ukraine and Israel.
The agency declined to make Mr. Manno available for additional comment.
Ukraine barred commercial aircraft from flying below 32,000 feet over the region before the downing of Flight 17 as combat continued on the ground and Ukrainian rebels previously shot down two military aircraft.
The Ukrainian government did that without giving the U.S. or the International Civil Aviation Organization, an arm of the United Nations, a detailed explanation, according to U.S. and air-safety officials. Countries are responsible for controlling and monitoring threats to their own airspace, and they traditionally haven’t been obligated to provide such explanations to the ICAO or other governments.
The FAA has barred U.S. commercial flights over Ukraine after Flight 17 went down.
The downing of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 has prompted widespread debate about the broader role of both the ICAO and the U.S. in analyzing airspace threats stemming from hostilities on the ground. ICAO has set up a government-industry task force to study the matter and make recommendations in several months to its policy-making body.
ICAO has set up a government-industry task force to study the matter and make recommendations in several months to its policy-making body.
Mitchell Fox, chief of ICAO’s flight operations office, on Thursday emphasized that individual countries are responsible for alerting airlines about airspace threats. But when conflict is under way, he told the safety conference, some countries “can’t always carry out, for obvious reasons,” such warnings. Governments involved in a conflict, he said, “may not always have the ability to do that.”
If the U.S. and the industry wait for ICAO to dramatically change its procedures, “we will end up waiting forever,” Mr. Moak said in the interview.
But in the U.S., he said, government officials are “going through a process” to identify ways to improve and speed up the warning system. “I hope that they’re going to announce something in the near future,” Mr. Moak said, without providing specifics. The union has been involved in some of those discussions.
“ICAO does need to have a role,” according to Mr. Moak, but “it would be better if the U.S. government is a leader here and they get out in front.” Then he said “we don’t have any confusion.”
Randy Harrison, corporate security director for Delta Air Lines Inc., said carriers increasingly are making decisions about where to stop flying based largely on their own risk assessments. “Airlines are now often acting quicker than the government agencies,” he told the conference.
In the case of halting service to Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, “we saw a number of airlines step out” and temporarily suspend flights “well ahead of the [U.S.] government.”
—Felicia Schwartz contributed to this article.