Lessons Learned from Canada’s Response to the Downing of PS752

Airplane at airport ready for boarding

On March 31, 2020, shortly after the downing of Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 over Iran, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed the Honourable Ralph Goodale as his special advisor regarding a number of critical matters that have arisen from this tragedy.

Mr. Goodale’s report was released shortly before the first anniversary of the crash on January 8, 2021. The report provides a detailed summary of the incident and the government’s response, and more importantly, outlines a set of best practices that Canada can implement in the event of another mass casualty incident as well as steps that can be taken on the international stage to improve flight safety globally.

Support for families

Of the 176 innocent victims of the crash, 138 had ties to Canada. They left behind a significant community of relatives, friends and colleagues across Canada, who were collectively and individually traumatized by their losses. Bereaved family members found themselves navigating a complex system that included multiple federal agencies and departments, provincial and municipal governments as well as corporations and charitable agencies. Mr. Goodale’s report praises the federal government’s efforts to coordinate the activities of these groups, and makes it clear that easing the administrative burden on victim’s families must be a primary goal for all future efforts as well.

Mr. Goodale also notes that the families of victims are entitled to closure and accountability and that international remedies available may be an assistance in this regard. In cases such as the downing of PS752 where citizens of multiple countries were on board and as result suffered from the same tragic event, it is prudent for Canada to reach out to those countries to work together in securing these international remedies for the families. The report highlights the work of the International Coordination and Response Group initiated by Global Affairs Canada which has emerged after this tragic incident as a good model.

Improved investigation frameworks

It is important to note that the majority of the current air safety investigation rules and frameworks work well when the cause of a crash is related to mechanical failure, bad weather, pilot error, etc. However, in circumstances similar to the downing of PS752 where a country’s military activity caused the accident, the existing system is not well suited to handle such an investigation.

Mr. Goodale lists three crucial shortcomings of the current framework. First the customary assignment of lead investigator responsibilities to the country in which the crash occurred can lead to conflicts of interest. Second, there are no international standards or enforcement mechanisms to enforce the timely production of black box flight recorder data. Third, the current framework provides formal investigative roles for the country where the crash occurred and the countries where the aircraft was registered and/or where the plane operators are domiciled, but third-party countries whose citizens were passengers are only granted limited participation in the investigation. The Iranian government’s apparent efforts to slow down or block the progress of the investigation (bulldozing the crash site within days, not releasing the black box data for more than six months) demonstrate the weakness of this system and its susceptibility to conflicts of interest.

In his report, Mr. Goodale recommends making changes to the investigations frameworks that are in place internationally. For example, Mr. Goodale proposes amending the Convention on International Civil Aviation (Chicago Convention) and/or its annexes. Although the report acknowledges that the process of change is certainly a long and complicated one, Mr. Goodale recommends developing protocols that apply specifically to shoot-down situations, which are sadly becoming more common.

Safer Skies Strategy

Although an improved response to mass casualty events is always beneficial, Canada’s ultimate goal should be the prevention of such incidents in the first place. But how can Canada better prevent such awful disasters? We might be able to find the answers in the Safer Skies Strategy initiative announced by the Government of Canada on February 14, 2020, at the Munich Security Conference. In his announcement, Prime Minister Trudeau invited other states to meet three objectives: to share information on civil aviation and military activities; to raise awareness with respect to international standards; and lastly and most importantly, to act collectively to protect civil aviation around conflict zones by restricting their own airlines from flying in airspaces near foreign conflict zones.

There is still a long road ahead in developing a comprehensive and effective management plan in response to these types of events. However, Canada’s efforts in investigating the facts and its quick response in providing support to the victims’ families is without a doubt notable. It is fair to say that the tragic downing of PS752 has impacted our nation in many ways but with the lessons learned from this tragedy Mr. Goodale’s report gives us a roadmap that could help Canada`s response in managing future international civilian aviation disasters.

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