Members of U.N. aviation body are mulling bigger role -sources

MONTREAL, July 22 Tue Jul 22, 2014 3:54pm EDT

MONTREAL, July 22 (Reuters) - Representatives to the U.N. civil aviation body are considering whether the agency should expand its role and issue safety advisories after a Malaysian airliner was shot down last week, two sources said on Tuesday.

But the sources said there was no guarantee the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) would decide to take on more responsibility.

ICAO, composed of 191 signatory states, as well as global industry and aviation organizations, has a limited role. It cannot open or close air routes and does not warn airlines to avoid regions because of conflict.

Some in the aviation industry now want ICAO to do more after Malaysian Airlines flight MH-17 was downed by a missile over eastern Ukraine last week, killing 298 people. Malaysia has said it was flying an ICAO-approved route, a misreading of the agency's role.

No one global body has overall responsibility for keeping the skies safe for civil aviation.

"People are looking at the specific question of issuing warnings over zones of conflict," one representative, who asked not to be identified, told Reuters.

An industry source with close connections to ICAO confirmed representatives were considering whether the body should issue advisories and suggested there could be a more formal debate among members.

ICAO has consistently said that it is up to member states to warn airlines about risks. The Malaysian airliner was shot down over territory held by Russian-speaking separatists.

ICAO's media department did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The representative said he doubted there would be big changes to ICAO's role.

"Small incremental adjustments could be made over time, but there is not going to be a big bang," he said, adding that ICAO already had a very clear mandate.

Both sources said one potential sticking point was the question of how liable ICAO would be for any advisory it issued.

"What happens if a body like ICAO takes on that role and gets it wrong?" said the industry source.

Another potential obstacle is whether member nations - which already have total control over their own airspace - would agree to hand over some powers to ICAO.

The Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation - the global voice of air traffic management - said it did not see a role for a central body to issue advisories.

"But we believe there should be a review of the systems and processes to be followed and actions to be taken in regard to the risks to airspace from potentially hostile actions," said spokesman Quentin Browell.

At the time of the crash, Ukraine had closed the airspace above the disputed region up to a height of 32,000 feet (9,800 meters). It has since banned all flights over the area.

Civil aviation authorities have the power to ban domestic airliners from flying along certain routes if they deem to be too dangerous.

ICAO has sent a four-person team to Ukraine to help the official probe into the fatal crash.

"This is a painstaking process and the collaboration of all concerned with the international team of investigators, notably where access to all evidence and data is concerned, will be greatly appreciated," ICAO Council President Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu said in a statement. (Writing by David Ljunggren; Editing by Amran Abocar and Steve Orlofsky)