Dangerous skies can be found from Israel to Iraq, and from Nigeria to North Korea, and aviation experts say the path that took Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and its 298 passengers over a war zone in eastern Ukraine was not unusual.
Commercial airlines fly over hot spots all the time without incident. However, risks are obvious, and different countries interpret protocols for overflights in various ways. U.S. carriers are probably among the most conservative about what territory to fly over — and they were directed by the country's Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in April to avoid a narrow corridor over eastern Ukraine, an advisory that continues until April of next year.
Reactions from other aviation agencies to Malaysia Airlines' second airborne tragedy in 2014 don't necessarily clear the air, but the airline would have had ample precedent from other countries' recent advisories to avoid eastern Ukrainian airspace.
The International Air Transport Association, the airline industry’s largest global trade organization, issued a two-sentence statement just hours after the apparent downing of the aircraft: “We extend our deepest sympathies to the families and friends of the passengers and crew of MH17. Based on the information currently available it is believed that the airspace that the aircraft was traversing was not subject to restrictions.”
What does "not subject to restrictions" actually mean in terms of aircraft safety? “First of all, that wasn’t supposed to be a hot area by several hundred miles,” said John Goglia, former board member of the National Transportation Safety Board, the independent U.S. agency that investigates airline accidents.
Or, more simply, “Why were they flying there? Because they could,” said an inspector for the FAA, who did not want to be named. “They were doing nothing wrong. They had the permits.” Furthermore, rules that apply to one country may not apply to another. “Who knows?" the FAA official said. "Maybe the head of Malaysia spoke to Putin — every country is different.”
On April 23, the FAA issued a notice prohibiting U.S. air carriers from operating within a narrow corridor of the region until at least April 2015. Although written in aviation jargon, the notice was clear: U.S. airlines were to cease all flying within the specified zone, with no exceptions. By Thursday night, the FAA went even further, issuing an updated notice that expanded the no-fly area for all U.S. airlines.
Earlier in April, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) issued a warning terming the region around Simferapol in Ukraine an “unsafe situation” and advising that “consideration should be given to measures to avoid the airspace and circumnavigate.” That same month, EuroControl — the European Organization for the Safety of Air Navigation, which facilitates communication between the patchwork quilt of European air traffic control agencies — noted that “traffic in the Ukraine has reduced significantly since February 2014.”
Europe is not well known for its history of cross-border agreement and cooperation, and its aviation agencies flow in the same pattern. “It’s 51 different countries and it’s 51 different rules and it’s 51 different decisions being made,” says Joseph Miceli, president of the Airline Dispatcher Federation, with 27 years of experience at United Airlines.
Miceli says U.S. regulations on such issues are the best in the world, and others agree. Since 1938, the U.S. has required all commercial flights to be overseen by a licensed dispatcher; those who have received such certification know it facilitates joint responsibility and control between crew and dispatcher for any given flight. In many countries, dispatchers create flight plans and forward them to air traffic control authorities, but they do not assume “flight following” responsibilities by closely monitoring the airplane until it is safely on the ground. In some countries, “the dispatcher files a flight plan but doesn’t have the same control," Miceli said. "They don’t have that two-headed monster we have.”
Several foreign airline tragedies over the years may have been prevented or mitigated if a U.S.-style system had been in place.
Avianca Flight 52 crashed in 1990 on Long Island when that it ran out of fuel en route to JFK International Airport; there were no dispatchers on duty in Bogota, Colombia, to offer route alternatives. Similarly, when Air France Flight 447 disappeared into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009, the lag in response was due in part to the lack of a dispatcher actively following the flight.
During the 2010 eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano, which spewed ash across Europe, British Airways and KLM encountered airborne crises attributed to flying through volcanic ash, while U.S. airlines avoided the area entirely.
Miceli says he goes out of his way to avoid war zones when he is creating flight plans, even for military charters and flights to Dubai. One dispatcher for a U.S. airline notes regulations that allow transpacific flights to skirt North Korea: “It’s perfectly approved — but we don’t do it.”
Technology has also brought change. The days of crew members “getting lost” or devising their own shortcuts en route are no more. As one dispatcher for a major U.S. carrier notes, “Our system blocks routes that overfly countries that are on our no-fly list.” In other words, some American carriers couldn’t enter dangerous zones even if they attempted it.
Meanwhile, U.S. airlines continue to proactively warn passengers about danger zones. Within hours of the accident yesterday, Delta stated that it would not route flights through Ukrainian airspace “out of an abundance of caution.” American Airlines provides updates on two other hotspots, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Among “important notices” posted by United is an advisory about travel to Tel Aviv.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a U.N. agency that is supposed to develop global aviation standards but often has little power to enforce them, said shortly after the downing of MH17 it had issued a prior warning. Its notice pointed out “the possible existence of serious risks to the safety of international civil flights.” ICAO also noted “alternative routings are available for those operators choosing to avoid the Simferopol [region].”
Though nearly every nation in the world is a signatory to ICAO, experts maintain that he real problem is the organization’s inability to enforce its own recommendations. "ICAO has no teeth," said an FAA inspector, who asked not to be named. "They can’t prohibit member states from doing something; they can only suggest it.”
Although media reports in recent days have referenced the shootdown of Korean Air Flight 007 by the Soviet Union in 1983, in which 269 people were killed, that event was not necessarily anomalous. In fact more than two dozen commercial aircraft have been shot down since the 1940s.
A Ukrainian military exercise led to the downing of a Siberia Airlines flight in 2001. And in 1988, the U.S. Navy shot down Iran Air Flight 655 over the Persian Gulf, killing 290.
Many of these incidents in recent decades occurred in developing nations and global hotspots, including Mozambique, Georgia, Ukraine and Iraq. Most recently, in March 2007, a TransAVIAexport Airlines flight was shot down during the Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia.
Can an airliner really fly safely over a war zone? Not according to one veteran dispatcher, who said that "missiles are capable of reaching well above commercial altitudes.” Another dispatcher explains: “There’s a difference between a MANPAD [portable] missile and a guided missile. We were taught a MANPAD can’t reach an aircraft at 32,000 feet.” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power made a similar statement about air-to-ground vs. portable missiles in her statement Friday at an emergency session of the security council.
There’s one other factor to be considered. Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was a code-share operation with the Dutch carrier KLM, meaning both airlines were selling tickets for the same flight. Code-sharing is problematic for many reasons, but this accident adds another concern. When booking a flight on Airline A, a passenger needs to worry about the safety and security policies maintained by Airline B.
Experts say the bottom line is that not all countries — let alone all airlines — view risk in the same way. And with fuel topping the list of all airline expenses, there’s no denying how tempting it can be for a carrier to shave miles and minutes — and therefore gallons of fuel — by taking a shortcut through a hot zone. As one FAA inspector says, “Since the end of the Cold War, airlines have found tremendous economy in flying over the Black Sea.”
Another dispatcher for a major U.S. carrier puts the issue this way: “Some things are approved, but we still don’t do them. For what? To save 10 minutes and about 2,000 bucks of fuel?”
William J. McGee, an FAA-licensed aircraft dispatcher and the lone consumer advocate on the Department of Transportation’s Future of Aviation Advisory Committee, is the author of "Attention All Passengers."