Ukrainian plane shot down in Iran: The consequences for air transport

On January 8, Iranian military forces shot down a plane of the airline Ukraine International Airlines, flight PS752 from Tehran to Kiev, killing all 176 people on board, passengers and crew.

The aircraft in question, a few months before its crash

If crashes are always dramatic, this one raises questions because history seems to repeat itself like the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.

To see more clearly, we asked Xavier Tytelman to answer our questions, after the wave of mainstream media, to go further.

Contrary to what this picture indicates, Xavier is not (yet?) an airline pilot

Xavier is a former military aviator, aviation consultant and founder of the fear of flying treatment center, which TravelGuys had the pleasure of testing a few years ago.

Here is an analysis of what happened, and the consequences for the aeronautical industry.

The rapid convergence towards the possibility of a missile

TravelGuys: From the beginning, the loss of instruments at altitude made us consider a non-technical issue, right?

Xavier Tytelman: Generally speaking, an aircraft does not stop transmitting instantaneously, there are only three imaginable options:

  • The plane is out of reach of the equipment that enthusiasts have put on their roofs to capture the transponders of the planes (this is the principle of FR24),
  • A pure and simple destruction of the aircraft (seen with the MH17 hit by a missile),
  • A power failure, whether voluntary or involuntary (MS802 and MH370).

In this case we had three additional indications pointing to the missile option:

  • An instantaneous break without any previous problem in the evolution of the aircraft nor the sending of automatic messages of malfunction,
  • A video showing the plane in flames before it crashed (it is difficult to conceive of a fire visible from the outside which at the same time prevents the electronic systems from functioning in the plane),
  • The eagerness of the Iranians to put forward a technical cause, even before the flight recorders were found on the ground…

All doubt then disappeared with the photos of the impact-riddled debris, the identification of an SA15 missile warhead, and the deterrence of two other videos clearly showing the missiles hitting the plane.

But despite this and the intelligence satellite info (which detects the heat of a missile launch from space), Iran still tried to deny responsibility… Until they had to confess… They just didn’t understand the world they lived in.

TravelGuys: In a crash, we like to analyze the causes in order to learn from them… Is this really possible in such cases?

Xavier Tytelman: Asking that military personnel be properly trained is obviously a prerequisite to any other development. It was simply unimaginable that an operator could think that an airliner slowly climbing in the axis of the airport and moving away from Tehran with an operational identification system could be assimilated to a U.S. cruise missile… which was unfortunately the case.

Boeing 777 of El Al, equipped with an anti-missile flare

There are not so many technical options, except for the installation of anti-missile flare systems on civilian aircraft, as the airline El Al has done. But this system is excessively expensive and mainly effective against missiles fired from the shoulder, not against those guided by a real radar station.

Important consequences for flights transiting the area

TravelGuys: What are the consequences for the many flights that transit the area?

Xavier Tytelman: There is none: the incompetence of an operator serving on a system designed to fire at low and medium altitudes has no possibility of being a risk for an airliner flying at more than 10,000m.

Gulf airlines usually fly massively over Iran and Iraq

Travelguys: And what about Qatar Airways, which already has to avoid the UAE and Saudi Arabia?

Xavier Tytelman: It is very common for areas to be closed to civilian traffic: diplomatic bans, rocket launches, military operations in an area.

At the time of the USSR, it was necessary for example to make an incredible detour to go from Europe to Japan, each time an Ariane rocket is launched, a large area is forbidden to planes.

And even if there is no risk of flying over Afghanistan for airliners, we never let military aircraft that may throw bombs insert themselves in the middle…

Qatar Airways has chosen to continue flying over Iran despite the ongoing conflict

The main consequence would be to increase the duration of the journey by forcing the planes to make additional detours to avoid a potential conflict zone in Iran.

TravelGuys: What measures have the airlines taken?

Xavier Tytelman: The few airlines that still serve Iran have not been banned from continuing their operations.

And planes from Qatar Airways, Emirates or Turkish Airlines continue to land in Iran every day. The other major airlines have chosen to cancel their flights, such as Lufthansa and Air France.

Lufthansa has suspended all its flights to Tehran for 3 months

Some airlines could have given up flying, in the same way that France put huge safety margins in place after the random shootings by North Korea over the Pacific, but as far as I know they did not.

As the tension subsides and the exchange of fire around Iran ends, the situation should normalize.

What’s next?

TravelGuys: Can we expect more events like this?

Almost all countries in the world are equipped with heavy systems to defend, for example, nuclear power plants or military sites…

Even if there are several precedents, we can now consider the risk to be zero in countries that are properly equipped and whose operators are trained.

The issue may be different in conflict zones, and in this case travelers can obviously measure the risk they are taking by traveling in the area.

But the issue is not specific to aviation, it is a deliberate choice to go to an area advised against by the diplomatic authorities.

Bottom line

Rather limited consequences, therefore, and in any case little to be done to prevent the event from happening again.

A big thank you to Xavier Tytelman, who you can find on his website, his YouTube channel or his Twitter feed.

Olivier Delestre-Levai
Olivier Delestre-Levai
Olivier has been into airline blogging since 2010. First a major contributor to the FlyerTalk forum, he created the FlyerPlan website in July 2012, and writes articles with a major echo among airline specialists. He now co-runs the TravelGuys blog with Bertrand, focusing on travel experience and loyalty programs.
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