ATW Editor's Blog

Airlines can take the high road on MH17 via airshow boycott


If, as now seems certain, Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 and the 298 people on board were casualties of war, then this is tragically not the first time. But it should be the last.

One outcome of this crash will likely be scrutiny of who determines and governs those airspace routes that are deemed unsafe for commercial airliners.

It appears that MH17 was in airspace deemed safe to fly in by Eurocontrol, despite this being over a combat zone where other military aircraft have been shot down recently. The only restriction was that airliners should stay above 32,000ft. Information from the MH17 flight indicates it was at 33,000ft when contact was lost.  Clearly, a 1,000ft margin was not enough. But given that the type of sophisticated surface-to-air missiles known to be operating in the Ukraine/Russia border regions can easily reach altitudes of more than twice 32,000ft, the wisdom of allowing any airliners to fly over that zone must be questioned.

IATA quickly set up a task force in the wake of the Malaysia Airlines MH370 disappearance and crash to explore and recommend options for better ways to continuously track airliners around the globe. Given the number of dangerous conflicts that now regularly ignite around the world, a separate task force may be necessary to establish a global, uniform authority and set of rules for determining the safety of commercial airspace routes and regulating their use.

That would be a common sense response to the MH17 disaster, but it would still be a remedy, not a solution.

I’ve been working this week at the Farnborough Airshow in the UK. International airshows are a regular part of the air transportation and aerospace calendar; they generate huge media interest and are both symbols of prestige for their host nations and conduits for billions of dollars of trade.

But the irony of this week’s events is that on the one hand, we have seen many of the world’s airline top executives attending Farnborough to complete and sign huge new airliner and engine deals at ceremonies in front of the world’s press.

And on the other hand, all around them are companies who make the kind of weapons that are now suspected of bringing down one of their own. Indeed, there are actual exhibits of those types of weapons at Farnborough, which opens to the public this weekend. In truth, these airshows are also arms trade fairs.

So I propose that airline executives join together and boycott airshows for as long as they are inclusive of both airliner makers and airliner destroyers.

It may be a crazy idea, but it’s nowhere as crazy as the shooting down of an airliner. And it’s one that would give airlines a chance to demonstrate they will no longer permit their aircraft, passengers and crew to become needless, innocent victims of war.

Discuss this Blog Entry 9

on Jul 18, 2014

Yes, the shootdown of MH17 is an unfathomable & horrific tragedy & I fully agree that if it was known that other aircraft had been shot down in this area recently, then the authorities should have closed the airspace to mitigate the risks to civil flights.

However, I do not agree with your concept of boycotting anything from these airshows. Does your suggested boycott then extend to those other 'airliner destroyers' i.e fighter jets too ?? It wasn't that long ago that a fighter brought down a civilian 747, after all ?? Would make for pretty boring airshow's if the fast jets & attack helo's etc were removed, don't you think ?? These draw cards bring in a LOT of paying aviation lovers who probably wouldn't show up if all that was flying was a bunch of airliner's that they could see at Heathrow or Paris CDG observation areas for free. This could certainly impact the financial viability of these shows.

Also, shows like Farnborough & Paris are showcases for things other than airliner sales. Plenty of military deals are done during these events which is why they include the fighters, helicopters, transports, missiles etc.

I think we need to view the latest incident as a tragic & terrible mistake, similar to the one committed by the US Navy in the Iran Air Airbus shootdown in 1988. The industry needs to learn from it & stop civil flights flying over war zones. Jumping onto the 'ban everything' band wagon that's becoming so trendy these days is certainly not the answer.

Most importantly, my sincerest condolences to the families & loved one's impacted by the loss of MH17, and to everyone at MAS on what has been a devastating year thus far. May all aboard MH17 & MH370 truly Rest in Peace.

on Jul 18, 2014

So you think airshow entertainment and financials are more important than preventing another MH17?
And if "aviation lovers" don't go to shows as a result of a boycott, then that's exactly my point. Even the threat of a boycott by the world's airlines would give them a high-profile world stage and it might just educate the broader public to the complex interaction of the commercial and military aerospace industry.
Modern warfare has fundamentally changed. It's no longer the purview of recognized defense forces under the control of nation states. We are in an era of so-called "small wars/asymmetric warfare/insurgency" - pick your favorite Pentagon term.
These fighters do not recognize, much less pay regard to the Geneva Convention. And they have nothing to lose, so downing an airliner and slaughtering innocents is not just fair game; in many circumstances it's a cheap publicity coup.
What has not changed, however, is the availability of highly-lethal, sophisticated weapons of the type used to bring down MH17. You can talk arms control all you like; if these weapons are made, they will get into the hands of insurgents.
So yes, I vote for a a few "boring" airshows if that's what it takes to stop this outrage and to ensure that aircrews and the public can be assured that when they step on to an airliner they do not risk becoming a war casualty.
And, by the way, the most exciting displays at Farnborough this week were those by the Airbus A380, A350 and Boeing 787.

on Jul 18, 2014

Hi Karen,

No, I certainly would never think entertainment or financial's more important than human life, but I still fail to see why your proposed airline 'boycott' of airshows that have military hardware would prevent this kind on incident either ??? If your idea were to ever succeed (very doubtful ??) then we won't need to worry because I doubt these airshows would survive on airlines alone anyway. Great, no airshow's anymore !!!

I wish you the very best of luck in your crusade to get airlines to stay away from Farnborough, Paris and most other international airshows that also host military representations (most of which are arms of Commercial airliner manufacturers that support ATW who pay your wages).

on Jul 18, 2014

What an embarassing hypocritical call which lacks any logic and reason.

According to this remarkably shortsighted logic shown by Mrs Walker after 9/11 we would have to boycott all those airshows where civilian airlines are displayed, too, as it were civilian airliners who caused the death of thousands of innocent people.

This evident example hopefully makes it obvious that you need to go down the causal chain a bit further than just one single link as Mrs Walker did. Not the exsitence of SAMs are responsible for what happened but those who fired it.

First of all SAMs are not designed to down airliners. Now that such a system has been misused we should blame those who did it and not the manufacturers of the same. That's as if you demand knives to be banned from everyday life because of the regular stabbings that occur every now and then.

Secondly no matter who shot down MH17, I am sure the involved system was not bought on an airshow. Airshows is not the place rogue states or rebels buy their weapons, but rather the good guys.

Further to that SAMs are a defensive weapon in general, especially such heavy and less mobile multi-component systems as the Buk, which allegedly was involved, as it can hardly be deployed unnoticed to hostile terrain. Like for any weapon system the key problem does not lay in their existence or sale, but in how and by whom they are used.

You should also question why there are SAMs before you come to such rash conclusions. The answer is simple: It's primarily attack planes who have led to the development of air defense weaponry. So how could you boycott airshows where a once misused defensive weapon is being displayed but then tolerate offensive airborne weapons that are the cause for the existence of the earlier?
That said you have to extend your boycott call to airshows where any airborne weapon system is displayed, if you want to claim some logical consistency for yourself.

And before you start demonizing the defense industry as a whole or whatever of their products you should bear in mind that almost every large aviation manufacturer has a huge exposure in the defense sector and that hardly any airliner could fly without the technology originally developed for military purposes. If you want to boycott those direcly or indirectly responsible for the existence of SAMs, then you should start with Airbus and Boeing and most of the big names.

Also give yourself a moment to think about who caused this whole conflict in Ukraine and the tragic consequences. The West is definitely not without guilt here.
We are totally used to such "collateral damages" in other war theatres, but now that it has hit our equals we play consternation. At least from an ethical point of view that is inconsistent and reprehensible.

Lastly if you are indeed such a pacifist how can you cling on this incident which costed 300 people's life but to remain silent when it comes to the thousands of innocent people killed by airborne weapons - be them manned or not - around the world every year?

This call for boycott is really ridiculous and must be the result of a severe brainstorm or it's a totally stupid PR stunt. In any case this can only harm Air Transport World.

on Jul 20, 2014

I thank you for your comments and viewpoints, but as some of them are personalized, please allow me to address them.
I am not a pacifist, though I would never use that term in a derogatory manner. People are entitled to their individual thoughts and beliefs on warfare as with everything else.
I am a former technology editor at a major international military magazine and also the former chief editor of another major military magazine. And I am the daughter of a USAF serviceman, born on a USAF Air Base. So my knowledge and understanding of military matters is extensive. Personally, I have also studied and read widely on World War I and visited many of its battle fields and cemeteries.
My profession now is chief editor of ATW and it is my duty to champion airlines and the air transportation industry, a world I also happen to love and hold its people and capabilities in deep respect.
This was not a PR stunt - I am entitled to express my opinions in blogs and editorials and there are no press releases. Nor is it hypocritical. My salary comes from the publishing company that owns ATW. If the allegation of my being paid by the arms makers were true, then the only hypocritical action I could take would be to stay silent.
I have no expectation of airlines following my recommendation; I simply want to make the point that the world's major airshows where airlines seek publicity through order signing ceremonies are also arms trade fairs. That's a simple truth.
And there are other uniquely commercial air transportation events where airline executives, if they so choose, could do their signing ceremonies. That's their call.
So my blog is an idea aimed at provoking some intellectual thought and discussion; no more, no less.
If, judging by your reaction, it's also a dangerous idea, then all the more reason to have the debate.

on Jul 20, 2014

Karen has provoked ME to some intellectual thought... and I come down on her side. This is a time to counter the Russian separatist's publicity stunt with one of our own... one that will be effective (noticed) without needing the dimension of appalling cowardice shown by those Russians. Commercial connections between plane-makers and arms-makers don't matter in this. What DOES matter right now is to grasp any passing opportunity to illuminate the nexus between the display for sale of SAMs amid the presence of large numbers of industry decision-makers.

I say (genuinely) 'good luck' to Karen's suggestion... not least because airline industry execs must love these junkets and will not lightly deny themselves their pleasures.

And one last comment. To respond to Bernard Gui... yes, SAMs are not intended for the destruction of civilian airliners engaged in civil air travel, but the ARE designed to shoot down whatever they might be aimed at. If, for any number of reasons, that target might be an airliner... it will be destroyed. I did not view Ms Walker's comment as an attack on the defense materiel industry.

on Jul 20, 2014

Thanks DownaandWelded. You make a valid point about SAMs. They were designed and built as defensive weapons and are very good at just that - defending against enemies that infiltrate territory you wish to protect. The Russian separatists - thugs- now have this very sophisticated system and are using it to score coups -- look what we shot down today! - and with the downing of an airliner, even if unintentional, have turned it into an offensive weapon. That's what happens with insurgencies, the rules change. Or more precisely, there are no rules.
So to your point about a protest that might be noticed, that's all I am trying to suggest. Airlines should find a way to bring the broader issue to public attention.

on Jul 21, 2014

SAMs are manufactured by states; it goes without saying state actors control their dissemination. The lack of global outrage over the shooting down of MH17 is something I find more disturbing then I can find words to express. Not to mention actions - be it by ICAO, or individual by governments, whether affected directly or not. There is such a vacuum of leadership and courage in the world that makes the current ongoing conflicts inherently more dangerous.

on Jul 21, 2014

It was disturbing to read some of the comments made here replete with personal barbs and slurs on an individual's integrity.
This blog is, by its very nature, a forum to express thought and provoke healthy debate on issues concerning the aviation industry, both civil and military. Everybody, including the chief editor of ATW is rightly entitled to his/her opinion on relevant subjects and the discussion thereupon.
However, such discussion must remain focussed on the merits of the topics and cannot be allowed to degenerate into any personal mud-slinging.
Ms Walker is completely correct in airing her views as the Chief Editor; it's her prerogative, indeed duty to foster debate while others are equally entitled to voice their opinions for or against but rudeness and offensive thought or language has no place in any public forum and must be derided firmly.
Our opinions and thoughts are what identify us as individuals but such opinions must remain in the realm of decency else our claims to civil behavior are rendered false.

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