Kathy Fox, TSB Chair
Natacha Van Themsche, Director of Investigations (Air)
18 March 2021
Check against delivery.
On January 8, 2020, Ukraine International Airlines flight 752 was shot down shortly after taking off from Tehran’s international airport, killing all 176 people on board, including 55 Canadians, 30 permanent residents and dozens of others with ties to Canada. Within a few short hours following this tragedy, the TSB advised Iran’s Aircraft Accident Investigation Board (or AAIB) that we would appoint an Expert in accordance with Annex 13 to the Convention on International Civil Aviation and we accepted Iran’s invitation to visit the accident site. From that day forward, we have been fully engaged in doing as much as possible to find out what happened, why it happened and what needs to change to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.
As a matter of practice, the TSB does not comment on reports from other agencies. However, given this unprecedented situation, where the state whose military was implicated in the event led the investigation, and given its impact within Canada, we feel that it is important to publicly convey our independent assessment of the final report.
But before I discuss the contents of Iran’s final investigation report, I will speak briefly about the investigation process itself.
First, I’d like to remind everyone that a safety investigation is not intended to attribute blame or determine civil or criminal liability. Other processes are better suited for that. Experience has shown that an independent and thorough safety-focused investigation usually offers the best chance of finding out what really happened and why, providing the answers that everyone is asking for, particularly the families who lost so much.
ICAO Annex 13 prescribes the roles of participating countries, including which state has the right to lead the investigation, and which other states may participate and to what extent. It should be noted that, in the case of PS752, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada had no jurisdiction to lead or conduct a parallel investigation.
From the very beginning, Iran offered the TSB more access to the investigation activities than we were technically entitled to, but less than what we asked for. For example, two TSB investigators spent six days in Tehran following the crash, visiting the accident site, examining the wreckage, and meeting with Iranian safety investigators to review information gathered by their team. Later, they also met with Iranian, Ukrainian, and French investigators in Kiev before returning to Canada.
In July of last year, our Expert and a TSB recorder specialist attended the readout of the aircraft’s flight recorders in Paris. Throughout the course of the investigation, we were in direct contact with Iran’s AAIB and attended many discussions with the other participating countries. However, in spite of multiple requests, we were never formally accorded the higher status of accredited representative and hence were not allowed to listen to the cockpit voice recorders or directly access the flight data recordings.
At Ukraine’s request, in early February of this year, we were invited to provide them technical assistance, and Ukraine gave us access to the draft safety report for review and comments, something we would not otherwise have been entitled to.
Throughout this process, we have specifically asked Iran’s AAIB to answer 3 important questions –
- What was the sequence of events, including the technical, human and organizational factors, that led to the missiles being fired and ultimately the downing of PS752?
- What was the basis for the decision to keep Iran’s airspace open during a period of heightened military alert after Iran had launched missiles into Iraq? and
- Why did civilian airlines continue to operate in Iran’s airspace in the hours following Iran’s launch of missiles into Iraq?
In addition, we submitted dozens more detailed questions related to these 3 main lines of inquiry, that we believed the final investigation report needed to address in order for it to be seen as thorough and credible.
Since receiving Iran’s draft investigation report, our team has carefully reviewed and analyzed its contents and has now compared it to the final report. Today we want to share our perspective discussing how the report answers the 3 main questions.
Sequence/factors leading to the shootdown by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)
Iran’s final report concludes that PS752 was shot down because an air defense unit mistook the B737 aircraft as a threat. This misidentification reportedly occurred because of a misalignment of the missile launcher’s radar. Furthermore, the operator did not receive permission to shoot from senior officers, as he should have. To date, Iran has provided no evidence to support this scenario; however, it is a plausible explanation for what happened. The report does not provide detailed information regarding how the misalignment occurred, nor what steps were taken to ensure it was properly calibrated, the missile operator’s training, experience, or proficiency, nor about how or why the required communications with central command were either not followed or were unsuccessful. The report frames this action in the context of the heightened military alert given their expectation of retaliation following Iran’s earlier launch of missiles against Iraqi air bases housing U.S. military personnel but does not discuss what supervision or oversight was provided of field operations by Iran’s command and control system. The AAIB says that military activities fall outside of the scope of an Annex 13 investigation– we do not agree.
Nor does the report discuss what steps the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has taken since then to identify the underlying safety deficiencies that allowed such an error to occur, nor what safety action has been taken to prevent such a mistake from happening again. Without this, how can the international civil aviation community be reassured that such a tragic error won’t happen again?
Why did the airspace remain open?
Iran’s final report generally explains the risk assessment process and mitigations that its civilian authorities took in coordination with the military, given the uncertainty of a retaliatory strike following their launch of missiles into Iraq. For example, the report says that Iran gradually cleared air traffic from using certain air routes to the west, from which direction they thought a retaliatory strike might come, and required military approval for each aircraft’s departure from civil airports such as Tehran’s International airport. However, Iran did not completely close its airspace to civilian aircraft.
Why did commercial airlines continue to operate?
In spite of being in a state of heightened military alert, Iran did not publish any notices to warn aircraft operators of these hazards, as recommended by ICAO, until after PS752 was shot down. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration did post a warning; however, this notice would not have been readily available to Ukraine International Airlines, nor other foreign operators outside of the U.S. Furthermore, Ukraine International Airlines was not the only airline to continue operating after Iran launched missiles against Iraq; eight other aircraft departed Tehran, before the shootdown of PS752.
This report only partially explains why the airspace remained open and why operators continued to fly after Iran had launched missiles into Iraq. It does not explain any of the underlying factors behind why the missiles were launched at PS752, the stated cause of this tragedy. In short, the report says what happened, but doesn’t address the why.
The report indicates that some unspecified safety actions have since been taken to reduce the risk of this happening again. However, the lack of detail means we can’t confirm that these actions will actually reduce the risks to civil aviation operations within Iran’s airspace.
Furthermore, although the AAIB has issued some recommendations, these don’t specifically address the stated cause of this tragic event – the launching of the missiles.
We know that this has been very difficult for the families. In the end, no safety investigation report can ever bring back those who were lost. And so we must look to what has been learned and what can be done to reduce the risk so that other families don’t have to suffer through this in the future.
We know that states will continue to engage in hostilities with other states, or within their state. And in such a hostile environment, there will always be a risk to civilian aircraft. Innocent lives can be lost. It is the responsibility of the state to reduce those risks.
So the best way to reduce the risk of such tragedies in the future is to firmly apply the lessons learned first, from the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and now, from this tragedy.
More needs to be done to protect international civil aviation from operating in conflict zones. In a follow-up report to its investigation into the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 over Ukraine, the Dutch Safety Board warned (and I quote): “Practice shows that States in which there is an ongoing armed conflict will not implement restrictions for their airspace on their own initiative.”
While ICAO has taken some action it wasn’t enough to prevent this occurrence. Transport Canada is now leading an initiative – Safer Skies – to improve the safety of air travel worldwide by addressing gaps in the way the civil aviation sector deals with conflict zones. Such initiatives offer the best hope for the future to avoid another PS752.
In closing, I know much concern has been expressed about the international protocols that govern the conduct of these very unique types of safety investigations involving military activities, specifically the issue of the state of occurrence investigating itself. Additionally, when a state’s accident investigation agency is not independent of the state aviation authority as required by ICAO, such as Iran’s AAIB, it can affect the credibility of the final report findings and the uptake of resulting recommendations intended to prevent future accidents.
Now that this safety investigation has concluded, the TSB is committed to advocating for a review of the provisions of ICAO Annex 13 to improve the credibility and transparency of such future safety investigations so that families and the public can have confidence in their findings and recommendations.
Wow: Virgin Australia Sells 71,000 Domestic Tickets In 24 Hours
Virgin Australia experienced one of its busiest days of domestic ticket sales in 20 years just after the Australian government’s A$1.2 billion (US$920 million) stimulus package went into effect. The enthusiasm was sparked by half-price flights offered on subsidized routes, which included flights to the Gold Coast from the cities of Melbourne and Sydney, among others.
71,000 tickets sold in 24 hours
Within the span of a full day, Virgin Australia sold enough tickets to completely fill over 400 of its Boeing 737-800s (which have 176 seats each). The hottest tickets were for subsidized routes, for which the airline halved its standard prices.
Swept up in the momentum and also experiencing large jumps in ticket purchases were other ‘full-price’ routes, which included Melbourne-Perth, Perth-Sydney, and Melbourne-Sydney.
“The overwhelming response from Australians demonstrates loud and clear that they are ready to get back in the air and travel and are a positive sign for the aviation and tourism sectors as they look to recover from the impacts of COVID-19,” -Virgin Australia statement via 7News.com.au
While Virgin Australia had the record-breaking day, The Islander reports that the country’s other airlines saw spikes in web searches during the same period. Searches for “Qantas”, “Jetstar,” and “Virgin” sharply increased from around midnight Thursday and spiking again at 06:00 Australian Eastern Daylight Time.
The Australian government’s stimulus package
Announced in early March, the government support package includes A$200 million (US$152.6 million) for Qantas and Virgin Australia. Reuters notes that this funding will support the airlines from April to October, with the intent to help maintain mothballed aircraft as well as bring planes out of storage and support wages for international flying staff.
Another major part of the scheme, and the main reason for this story, is the government subsidization of 13 routes. Subsidization has meant that eligible airlines can offer half-price tickets. The impetus for the deal was to support airlines while encouraging domestic tourism at a time when international tourism has been hard hit. According to The Guardian, the routes are as follows:
- Sydney: flights to the Gold Coast, Cairns, Proserpine, Hamilton Island, Maroochydore, Uluru, Alice Springs, Launceston, Broome, and Avalon.
- Melbourne: flights to the Gold Coast, Cairns, Maroochydore, Alice Springs, Uluru, Launceston, Devonport, Burnie, Broome, and Merimbula.
- Adelaide: flights to the Gold Coast, Maroochydore, Alice Springs, and Kangaroo Island.
- Brisbane: flights to Alice Springs, Uluru, and Launceston.
- Darwin: flights to Cairns and Broome.
- Perth: flights to Alice Springs.
- Avalon: flights to the Gold Coast
The half-price fares were made available on April 1st and will continue to be offered until the end of July.
Hope for the best, plan for the worst
One key concern when it comes to domestic flight bookings is the ever-present risk of interstate border closures in the event of an outbreak during this global health crisis. While it’s hard to resist a good deal, it’s also wise to consider the possibility of such unwelcomed restrictions. Having flight bookings with flexible re-booking and cancelation policies will help greatly if such restrictions arise.
Were you a lucky Australian resident who managed to secure a half-priced flight? Or did you try and miss out? Share your experience with us in the comments.
US Congressmen Call On DOT To Deny Norse Atlantic Airways Permits
The Chair of the US House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Peter DeFazio, and Chair of the Subcommittee on Aviation, Rick Larsen, have called on the US Department of Transportation (DOT) to deny permits for Norse Atlantic Airways to fly to the United States, citing concerns about the airline.
Members of Congress on Norse Atlantic Airways
Rep. DeFazio, a Democrat from Oregon, and Rep. Larsen, a Democrat from Washington State, have called on the DOT to deny Norse Atlantic Airways Operating permits on account that it is flouting labor protections.
Drawing on earlier language indicating opposition to the airline, Reps. DeFazio and Larsen have argued that, by organizing itself in a country outside of Norway, where there are strong labor laws, the airline is seeking to flout those laws.
Drawing strong comparisons with Norwegian
The two Congressmen believe the airline is doing this because one of its executives was a former executive at Norwegian, which used Irish and UK subsidiaries to operate long-haul low-cost flights between the US and Europe.
In the letter, the Congressman stated the following:
“Their long-haul low-cost business model was predicated on the use of pilots and flight attendants employed under short-term contracts and assigned to the Norwegian subsidiaries via third-party crew sourcing firms. In short, Norwegian exploited labor while enjoying the liberalized benefits of the U.S.-E.U.-Iceland-Norway open skies agreement and competing unfairly with airlines that do not subvert fair labor standards.”
Using Norwegian as a warning
The letter also urged the DOT to consider that Norwegian failed in its transatlantic operations. Between 2016 and 2019, the letter states that Norwegian incurred debt of nearly $7 billion.
Norwegian is currently under bankruptcy proceedings in Europe and has decided to shut down its long-haul routes and focus on its flights within Europe.
Norwegian made a huge splash when it started transatlantic operations in 2016 between the US and Europe. Using a fleet of mostly Boeing 787 aircraft, the airline brought large numbers of customers across the pond.
Norse Atlantic Airways has already indicated it will operate a similar model, using Boeing 787 aircraft it has signed leases for.
US airlines breathed a sigh of relief
When Norwegian came into the transatlantic market, it followed its initial routes with plenty of growth. That growth put pressure on US airlines.
Now, without Norwegian in the market, airlines are breathing a sigh of relief. Without that low-cost competition in the market, airlines like United are bullish on their international exposure. Without Norwegian in the market, there is also room for plenty of existing airlines to move toward higher-yield transatlantic operations.
The return of transatlantic demand will depend greatly on the removal of travel restrictions between the US and Europe. Most airlines are focused on cargo with low passenger loads on flights to Europe currently. Only essential travel is permitted between the two areas.
Norse Atlantic is a startup to watch. It has the opportunity to massively grow to the size of Norwegian’s long-haul operations before it shut down, but doing so may come at a high cost and low profitability. It will have to make the long-haul low-cost model work to be successful.
For now, it is a waiting game to see how the DOT will respond to Norse Atlantic. US Congressmen are coming down on the side of the US airline industry, but the DOT may end up granting Norse Atlantic operating permission.
Do you think Norse Atlantic Airways should be allowed to operate between the US and Europe? Let us know in the comments!
Frontier Launches IPO – How Can The Airline Benefit?
American ultra-low-cost carrier (ULCC) Frontier Airlines has officially gone public. Pricing out at the lower end of its target share price, the airline is still expecting to raise over $200 million from the endeavor. Here is a look at how that could benefit the airline.
Frontier’s initial public offering pricing
Frontier Airlines announced its initial public offering of 30 million shares at a price of $19 per share. This was toward the lower end of the initial pricing for Frontier’s shares. The share consists of 15 million shares of commons tock offered by Frontier and 15 million shares of common stock to be sold by certain of Frontier’s existing stockholders.
Less the underwriting discount, commissions, and estimated offering expenses, Frontier will net proceeds of approximately $266 million. The sale of stock by the existing stakeholders will not raise Frontier cash. Overall, the net proceeds to both Frontier and the private stakeholders is expected to be over $500 million.
The airline is being traded on the Nasdaq Global Select Market under the ticker “ULCC.” Since going public, the airline’s stock price has hovered between $18 and $19 a share.
The net proceeds
The amount that Frontier expects to receive is around $266 million. This is a respectable amount similar to the funding another airline IPO, Sun Country, received.
With $266 million, the airline can do plenty of things. Frontier ended 2020 with long-term debt of over $300 million. The airline can choose to pay down some of its high-cost debt with these proceeds. Or else, the money can be used to fuel expansion. The airline sees plenty of growth opportunities and has a sizable aircraft order book which costs money, and this funding can go a long way.
The current state at Frontier
Frontier Airlines is one of the carriers leading the way with capacity increases through the year. The airline’s top stations are Denver, Orlando, and Las Vegas. These are major leisure travel hotspots, but some of them also provide opportunities for Frontier to sell connecting flights.
Frontier serves over 300 nonstop routes touching around 110 airports. Using a low-frequency model, the airline targets mostly point-to-point leisure travelers.
Frontier also sees plenty of room for growth. In the airline’s initial filing for an IPO, the carrier highlighted it had an opportunity to serve 518 additional domestic routes between airports within its existing network not currently served by a ULCC. This is a fascinating number, but it also raises the question of Frontier’s expansion.
In the past, Frontier has not been very hesitant in terms of adding new cities and then cutting them if those flights do not provide the anticipated financial benefits. Moving forward, Frontier will face shareholders and stockholders that may temper some of those ambitions, but the carrier is still expected to add new routes. This is especially true as signs continue to point toward a summer surge, and the CDC outlines guidelines for vaccinated Americans to travel.
The airline is already making moves to become a more modern, fuel-efficient carrier with an eye on costs. The aging and comparatively expensive Airbus A319s will exit the fleet this year as the airline welcomes newer Airbus A320neo family aircraft. Those new jets will also feature lighter-weight seats that will save on fuel, which in turn saves on Frontier’s costs.
Ultimately, Frontier has set itself up to do well in the future. The net proceeds from this IPO will go a long way in getting Frontier the cash influx it needs to survive the next few months and prepare to handle the increase in passengers expected over the summer. As the US airline industry starts to turn the page on the crisis, Frontier is expected to be one carrier that benefits early on from its mostly domestic and short-haul international leisure-oriented model.
Do you think Frontier made the right decision by launching an IPO? Let us know in the comments!
Cheap ticket deal breaks Virgin’s all-time record, despite lockdown
Virgin sold more domestic tickets on the launch day of the government’s half-price ticket scheme than on any 24-hour period in its history.
The result came despite fears Brisbane’s recent snap lockdown, which ended on Thursday, would put people off interstate travel.
Domestic aviation has been pinning its recovery hopes on the federal government’s plan to supplement 800,000 half-price airfares for passengers to 15 destinations including the Gold Coast, Alice Springs and Kangaroo Island. It follows the end of JobKeeper last week.
Virgin said in a statement it sold 71,000 supplemented seats in the 24-hour period from 12:01am on 1 April. The top five routes were:
- Melbourne to Gold Coast
- Gold Coast to Sydney
- Maroochydore to Melbourne
- Cairns to Sydney
- Adelaide to Melbourne
Destinations not in the scheme also received a “significant boost”, in particular, Melbourne to Perth, Perth to Sydney and Melbourne to Sydney.
“The overwhelming response from Australians demonstrates loud and clear that they are ready to get back in the air and travel and are a positive sign for the aviation and tourism sectors as they look to recover from the impacts of COVID-19,” said the business in a statement.
“As a sign of renewed confidence and pent-up travel demand for travel, more than 85 per cent of the new bookings have been booked for travel from May onwards.”
Greater Brisbane lifted its snap lockdown on Thursday at noon, following the state recording just one new case of community transmission.
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk did though announce a slight increase in restrictions, which will require residents to wear masks indoors and a limit of indoor gatherings to 30.
The good news came shortly before NSW announced no new local infections across the state, too.
The half-price ticket scheme saw Virgin announcing fares from just $55 between Melbourne-Launceston and Jetstar offering tickets from just $32 between Adelaide and Avalon.
The updated list of destinations now includes Cairns, Townsville, Whitsunday Coast/Hamilton Island, Sunshine Coast, Darwin, Alice Springs, Hobart, Launceston, Devonport, Broome, Avalon, Merimbula, Adelaide, Kangaroo Island and the Gold Coast.
The fares are on sale until the end of July for travel until the end of September, with discounts applied automatically.
Both airline groups have also topped up the 15 locations with sales to other destinations and also extended fare flexibility in light of recent uncertainty.
The package of measures to support aviation in Australia also includes a new wage subsidy for those working in international aviation; cheap loans to small business coming off JobKeeper; and a six-month extension of the ‘RANS’ and ‘DANS’ supplemented routes initiative.
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