We don’t absolutely know who shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH-17, killing 298 persons including at least one American citizen, or why they did it. We do know we need to take immediate steps to prevent such an “outrage,” as President Obama called it Friday, from happening again. Shooting down a civilian jet is unacceptable in modern times. Irina Tipunova, 65, told reporters how the body of a woman crashed through her roof. Everything in her house started to shake, she said. “Then I heard a roar and she landed in the kitchen.” It was the deadliest attack ever on a commercial airliner. There were no survivors from the flight of the Boeing 777, which was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. Bodies were scattered over nine miles of rebel-held territory near Ukraine’s border with Russia. According to the United Nations, 80 of those who died were children. Was what happened horrific and unthinkable? Yes, but mourning the dead and expressing our shock is not enough. The international community must take concrete action, led by the United Nations peacekeepers so that the perpetrators can see the world is against them, to quickly and, if need be, forcefully root out the cause and limit the possibility that similar future tragedies would occur in Ukraine or another war zone, such as Gaza, Israel, Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s believed that Flight MH-17 was blasted from the sky by one or more surface-to-air missiles, known more commonly as SAMs. On Monday, a cargo airplane was shot down in the same area. On Wednesday, two Ukrainian fighter jets were downed in the same region, apparently by air-to-air missiles (AAMs). The U.S. military and intelligence community, along with the United Nations, should eliminate the SAM resources in those areas, even if it requires military force. Rhetoric alone won’t prevent more deadly missiles from rocketing skyward. How else can we protect the flying public? The International Civil Aviation Organization and the Federal Aviation Administration should issue notices prohibiting nonmilitary flights over all portions of Ukraine and neighboring areas of Russia, not just the limited spots that were added by the FAA late Thursday. France already has banned flights over all of Ukraine. But the new FAA advisory only says that “due to recent events, all flight operations by U.S. operators within the Simferopol and Dnepropetrovsk flight information regions are prohibited. Events have indicated the potential for continued hazardous activities.” International and U.S. civil aviation authorities should issue the same ban for any other international areas where conflict or terrorism is prevalent and where SAMs and AAMs are potential threats in the altitude ranges used by commercial flights. It is time for every carrier to reassess its routes. Even though its flight path wasn’t prohibited and other aircraft had flown it without incident, MH-17 was flying in a known conflict zone only 1,000 feet above the 32,000-foot ceiling of the restricted airspace that had been set up in Ukraine. With three planes downed in the previous three days and knowing SAMs are capable of reaching 49,000 feet or higher, aviation authorities knew any flight there was at extreme risk. The loss of another Malaysia Airlines carrier calls into question the safety and risk-management practices of the airline and the Malaysian regulatory authorities. Malaysia Airlines has been looking for Flight MH-370 and its 239 passengers and crew since March 8. The loss of two 777s in the past four months is a new record for the airline industry, as well as evidence that it needs to take an aggressive, safety-first approach to all flight operations, planning, and equipment issues. Flights in conflict areas where missiles or other aviation threats exist should be ended. As we have learned from these two incidents, every jetliner should have deployable flight recorders and GPS-based tracking systems so that, in the event of an emergency, we can know what happened and end the needless, endless speculation that haunts the aftermaths. We owe that much and more to the victims.
Robert A. Clifford, a senior partner at Clifford Law Offices in Chicago, has handled and led litigation on behalf of aviation crash victims nationally and internationally for three decades.