Iran plane crash: What are the travel implications after Tehran admits shooting down flight PS752?

Military shootdowns of commercial airliners have now claimed almost 500 victims in six years

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Saturday 11 January 2020 10:22
Comments
Video purports to show moment Ukrainian airliner is hit by missile over Iran

Tehran has now admitted that the Ukrainian jet that crashed near the capital on Wednesday morning was inadvertently shot down by a surface-to-air missile launched by the Iranian military.

All 176 passengers and crew on the Boeing 737 to Kiev died in the crash of flight PS752 just west of Tehran.

Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, tweeted: “A sad day. Preliminary conclusions of internal investigation by armed forces: human error at time of crisis caused by US adventurism led to disaster.”

He offered “profound regrets, apologies and condolences to our people, to the families of all victims, and to other affected nations”.

Is this admission a surprise?

Yes, given the attitude of the Iranian regime during the first 72 hours after the Tehran tragedy. What is now described as a “disastrous mistake” was initially blamed on technical problems.

Even though Iran’s military chiefs will presumably have known within minutes that one of their missiles downed the plane, officials initially denounced the West’s evidence of a shootdown as “propaganda”.

The head of the civil aviation authority, Ali Abedzadeh, flatly rejected the claims, saying: “Scientifically, it is impossible that a missile hit the Ukrainian plane, and such rumours are illogical.” He insisted the plane experienced engine failure and was heading back to the airport when it crashed.

Should the plane have been allowed to take off from Tehran?

Given the extreme sensitivity to threats by the Iran military, just hours after Iran had fired missiles at bases with US troops in Iraq, clearly not. With the country on a war footing, with hindsight it would have been better to issue a “ground stop” to passenger traffic.

But that order was never made. In Iran as elsewhere, military and civil air-traffic controllers coordinate operations. Civil controllers will have sought clearance from the military for operations to continue at Tehran airport, and conversely anti-aircraft personnel should have been aware that airspace was being used by commercial aircraft for scheduled flight.

Was the plane off course?

Iran’s civil aviation authority has said that the Ukraine International flight took an unusual turn and started descending and therefore was regarded as a threat by a Revolutionary Guard base.

One theory is that the pilots did encounter a problem and decided to turn back. But for flight crew not to liaise with air-traffic controllers in such circumstances is almost unthinkable. In addition, the tracking site FlightRadar24 has analysed six weeks of departures on the route and concludes that there was nothing special about the Wednesday morning routing of flight PS752. It followed a standard departure path from Tehran in terms of direction and altitude.

What are the implications of Iran’s admission?

It means that military shootdowns of commercial airliners have now claimed almost 500 victims in six years: the worst air disaster of the last decade was the loss of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014.

All 298 passengers and crew aboard the Boeing 777 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur were killed when a surface-to-air missile was fired from rebel-held territory. In this case, as with the Iranian tragedy, a Russian missile was used.

Are planes still flying over Iran – and for that matter, Iraq?

Yes. On Friday, the Department for Transport warned UK airlines of a “potential risk from heightened military activity and dedicated anti-aviation weaponry” in both Iran and Iraq and advised carriers “not to enter the territory and airspace” of either country.

Yet plenty of flights are still using Iranian and Iraqi airspace. The Saturday morning Qatar Airways plane from Doha to Edinburgh flew over Iran, while the Qatari airline’s Manchester flight took its usual route over Iraq.

Qatar is banned from the airspace of several countries so it has little choice but to use those routes to Europe. But Emirates is also using the corridors over Iraq rather than routing south across Saudi Arabia. As I write, flight EK1 from Dubai to Heathrow is between Baghdad and the Iranian frontier.

The airline, one of the biggest in the world, has extremely complex scheduling choreography. If an Emirates round-trip to Heathrow, Newcastle or Glasgow arrives back in Dubai an hour late because of an extended flight, half the intended connections may be missed.

Iran TV footage allegedly shows black boxes from Ukrainian plane that crashed near Tehran

How worried should passengers be?

In a world where aviation is becoming progressively safer, tragedies involving unintended shootdowns are all the more prominent. Airlines, governments and, above all, passengers are understandably concerned about the risk of inadvertent mass killing.

There are two schools of thought about the effect of the Iranian admission on air safety. The first is that the government, the military and civil aviation officials in Tehran, aghast at this tragedy, have taken ownership and will do everything they can to avoid any possible repeat.

The opposite view is that the initial vehement denials of blame by Iran’s government and civil aviation authority means that they cannot be trusted.

A good indicator of which perspective prevails in the international community will be how swiftly flight bans over Iran by the UK and other governments are relaxed.

Meanwhile thousands of passengers with advance bookings on Gulf-based airlines are considering whether or not to change their plans, losing hundreds or thousands of pounds. Emirates, Qatar Airways and Etihad of Abu Dhabi say their normal terms and conditions apply, and therefore no-penalty postponements or cancellations are not possible.

My personal view is that I would confidently book on a flight overflying the region; if the captain is prepared to fly, I am happy to accept his or her judgement.

As the UK government has advised against overflying Iran and Iraq, could British passengers who discover their flight is likely to take a route across one or the other refuse to fly – and get their money back?

They can refuse to fly, but they won’t get a refund. The UK is advisory, and applies only to British carriers. Foreign airlines will follow their own governments’ advice.

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