Exclusive: U.N. aviation body to hold safety meeting with IATA, others - sources

MONTREAL Thu Jul 24, 2014 7:48pm EDT

Pieces of the wreckage are seen at a crash site of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 near the village of Petropavlivka (Petropavlovka), Donetsk region July 24, 2014. REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev

Pieces of the wreckage are seen at a crash site of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 near the village of Petropavlivka (Petropavlovka), Donetsk region July 24, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Maxim Zmeyev

MONTREAL (Reuters) - The U.N. civil aviation agency will hold a broad international meeting to discuss airline safety in the industry's most coordinated response to the downing of a Malaysian airliner, two sources familiar with the matter said on Thursday.

The meeting of ICAO and top officials from the airline industry and air traffic controllers, to be held in Montréal next week, comes amid growing calls for action to prevent a repeat of last week's incident, which killed 298 people.

But both sources also said it was not immediately clear what action would result from the meeting, given the agency's limited operational role. ICAO does not issue warnings about the dangers linked to conflict.

The United States, home to the world's biggest domestic aviation market, quickly dampened expectation of any major changes to the way global aviation is organized.

The Montréal meeting will group top officials from the International Civil Aviation Organization as well as the International Air Transport Association and other agencies, the two sources said.

Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was shot down last week over a part of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian-speaking separatists. Industry figures have since urged ICAO to take on a bigger role and issue risk advisories.

ICAO, IATA, the Civil Air Navigation Services Organization and Airports Council International will discuss the respective roles of each in airspace over conflict zones, the sources said.

"The idea is for the partners to discuss solutions," said one aviation industry source close to ICAO, who spoke on condition of anonymity. A spokesman for ICAO said a meeting was under discussion, but had not been confirmed. IATA in Geneva declined to comment.

Two ICAO representatives said the MH17 incident had sparked internal debate on whether the agency could one day provide risk advisories, although they did not expect to see any imminent changes. Member states have ultimate control over their own airspace and may be reluctant to hand over power to ICAO.

ICAO Council President Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu issued a letter on Thursday reminding member states that they were ultimately responsible for ensuring aviation safety in their airspace.

"The obligations of states should not be confused with safety information circulated from time to time by ICAO," he said in a statement.

In an indication of possible resistance to the idea of giving ICAO more authority, the United States made clear it was currently "not seeking changes" to ICAO's guidelines after the MH17 disaster and the disappearance of another Malaysia Airlines plane, which had 239 passengers and crew on board, in early March.

The March incident prompted calls for improvements in the way planes are tracked.

"We plan to participate in any ICAO-led reviews related to these events to determine whether changes are called for," a senior State Department official told Reuters.

CHALLENGES REMAIN

Other hurdles include concerns over potential liability - whether ICAO could be held responsible for an incident in a sector of airspace it had not issued a warning about.

Expanding ICAO's role would require the agency to obtain sensitive information from its member states about their internal military and political affairs.

"ICAO doesn't have a view on political disputes," said a national representative to the agency, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the media.

"That said, it's not impossible to do and it is certainly worth looking at."

Tim Clark, president of Dubai's Emirates [EMIRA.UL], told Reuters on Sunday he wanted an international conference of carriers to address the disaster, a call backed by Lufthansa.

Clark told CNN on Wednesday the airline industry needed to examine the growing risks from regional conflict and questioned whether all airlines, particularly those from smaller countries, were receiving the same degree of intelligence-sharing about possible threats.

He said the aim of such a conference would be to look at standards and security protocols.

    "I'm hoping in the next few weeks ... that we can get around the table and at least start having some brainstorming sessions to see what can be improved," he said.

ICAO has yet to convene an emergency meeting of its executive council over MH17, a step it took after a Soviet jet shot down a South Korean airliner in 1983 and a U.S. cruiser downed an Iranian passenger jet in 1988.

(Writing by David Ljunggren in Ottawa, additional reporting by Allison Martell in Toronto and Tim Hepher in Paris; editing by Amran Abocar, G Crosse and Mohammad Zargham)

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