Many in the worlds of aviation and international relations were surprised when Iran took responsibility for the shootdown of Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 and by the strong tone of regret coming from the country’s leadership.

An electronic board with information on flights, including the one from Tehran marked as cancelled is seen at the International Airport Boryspil in Kyiv. .jpg
Boeing 737 crashed after taking off from Tehran's airport on 8 January © Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The full picture has yet to emerge, but it does seem that the crash of flight PS752 was a shootdown, both given the admission by Iran and the briefings that the United States seems to have given fairly simultaneously to both domestic media and allied governments like Canada and the United Kingdom.

There are promising early signs that the investigation may be robust enough to give confidence that nothing is being swept under the rug. Iran has handed over the black boxes (the Cockpit Voice Recorder and Flight Data Recorder) to Ukraine. France’s BEA (the Bureau d'Enquêtes et d'Analyses, the French Civil Aviation Safety Investigation Authority) confirmed that it will be present at the technical work to read and interpret the data and recordings, and any initial or final conclusions will be some time away.

Remains of the plane are seen as search and rescue works are conducted at site after a Boeing 737 plane.jpg
Search and rescue work is continuing at the site © Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

But what seems to have happened is that a close-in air defence missile was fired at the aircraft, having been mistaken for an attacking US aircraft. Tragically, this mistake cost the lives of everyone on board flight 752. The details aren’t confirmed yet: was it an anti-aircraft missile on automatic, a trigger-happy missile operator, or something else? In truth, the whole story may remain unclear for some time.

Crucially, and differently to the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014, this missile was a low-level air-defence type striking an aircraft just after takeoff rather than the kind that can reach up to an aircraft’s cruising altitude. It also seems, from the statements out of Iran — both military and civilian — that there is genuine chagrin and contrition from the leadership, and a commitment to avoiding anything similar happening in the future.

You might ask why one should believe that commitment, and suspicion of motive is certainly a time-honoured tradition in international relations and in the region’s often turbulent politics. Fundamentally, the powers that be in Iran have an interest in international airlines either maintaining their flights to the country or, in the case of the many overseas carriers that have suspended flights, returning to serve Tehran and other airports.  The local unrest generated by the incident, too, is not something that those in charge are looking to create. Moreover, whenever a plane flies over a country the airline pays an overflight fee to that country. Iran’s interest is, therefore, in returning overflights to normal.

Read more: Should you avoid Boeing planes after the 737 MAX crash?

But overall, unless you’re flying over or near Iran or Iraq (on which more shortly) you should be reassured that airlines are taking sensible steps to avoid the risks of being near conflict zones, and that initial suggestions from diplomatic sources that the crash was caused by technical issues have now been walked back.

But what does it mean for you, the traveller?

Our first thoughts have to be with all those onboard flight PS752, whether passengers or crew and their families, friends and other loved ones. But if you’re worried about flying, the bottom line is that this was an incredibly rare event and one that is unlikely to be repeated elsewhere.

That’s still true if you’re on one of the few airlines to continue flying over Iran in recent days. As I write this, airlines including (in alphabetical order) Aeroflot, Air Arabia, Azerbaijan Airlines, Jazeera Airways, Oman Air, Pakistan International Airlines and Qatar Airways are over Iranian airspace, as well as, of course, Iranian airlines.

Onboard flight map.jpg
It's not unusual for some airlines to avoid flying over particular countries © Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Remember, this was a close-in missile defence system and the plane had only just taken off. Not only will Iran be very vigilant to ensure nothing similar happens by accident, but the few airlines that are still overflying Iran will be in constant contact to ensure that their planes are in safer areas and that the relevant authorities know exactly where they’re flying.

This article was first published on 8 January 2020 and updated on 13 January 2020. 

Aviation journalist John Walton writes regularly on travel for Lonely Planet and a variety of aviation magazines. Follow him at @thatjohn

This article was first published Jan 8, 2020 and updated Jan 13, 2020.

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