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Air Ukraine Not to Blame

The crash of the Air Ukraine flight after departing Tehran has raised the spectre of airliners being targeted, and it has happened before. Writing for Forbes, Will Horton reports that Air Ukraine has been vindicated.

Above: Air Ukraine Boeing 737-800 seen at Frankfurt - tjdarmstadt Wikimedia Commons

International norms for airlines and governmental bodies call for public communications after a plane crash to be quick, accurate and fact-based. It should avoid inferences, speculation and any hint of blame.

So it was of some surprise when Ukraine International Airlines diverged from this protocol when speaking on the same day as the crash of flight PS752 from Tehran to Kiev that killed all 176 onboard. The airline started routinely by identifying the aircraft, pilots and the flight hours they had accumulated – all factual. But then there was inference: “Given the crew’s experience, error probability is minimal. We do not even consider such a chance,” Ukraine Airlines VP Operations Ihor Sosnovsky said in a statement.

The minimal error probability stood out on its own, let alone the follow-up that crew error had so quickly been ruled out by the airline and not the safety authorities tasked with identifying cause.

This outspoken airline commentary, followed by Kiev and then foreign governments, would prove influential – perhaps necessary – for the cause of PS752’s crash to be acknowledged by the Iranian government, which initially denied any fault.

While foreign governments were concluding a missile was likely responsible, Ukraine Airlines continued to refute Iran’s theories, ranging from abstract technical problems or pilot handling to specific mentions of engine failure. It did not help Ukraine’s embassy in Iran also initially said the flight had technical problems, comments it quickly retracted as unofficial.

Iran did not absolve Ukraine Airlines of blame even when it first acknowledged it had unintentionally fired at flight PS752. Iran’s admission came with the caveat it fired the missiles because the flight turned towards a “sensitive military center” and “took the flying posture and altitude of an enemy target.” This proviso was carried in the first paragraph of major reports despite lacking of evidence.

By then there was already independent assessment of flight paths out of Tehran’s airport that day to show PS752’s flight path was consistent with previous take-offs. Ukraine Airlines even compiled flight path data going back to November to show there was no abnormality. “There was no deviation from flight path despite someone wants to imply this,” Sosnovsky told a briefing in Kiev. While the flight had made a slight turn north – as had been done on previous days – the heading adjustment was “strictly in accordance with the controller’s permission.”

Although a formal report is some time away, Ukraine Airlines finally received vindication from Iran. “The plane was flying in its normal direction without any error and everybody was doing their job correctly,” Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh of the Aerospace Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said on state television. “If there was a mistake, it was made by one of our members.” While there are questions if Ukraine Airlines and other carriers should have been flying in Iran airspace, many answer that sensitive matter by saying the determination is up to the country overseeing the airspace.

Iran’s final admission does not change the tragedy, but is more than what Malaysia Airlines has from the 2014 downing of flight MH17. Australia and the Netherlands hold Russia accountable for MH17 but Russia rejects that. Both accidents bring lasting effects to the loss of life, the country and the airline itself.

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