Malaysia Airlines Crash Shows Air Traffic Challenges Around Conflict Zones
Last week's downing of a Malaysia Airlines passenger plane over Ukraine highlights a difficult fact of life for the aviation industry: Flying between Europe and Asia, a heavily trafficked part of the world, puts planes over numerous conflict zones. Associations representing the industry say that planes deserve safe passage.
Last week’s downing of a Malaysia Airlines passenger plane over Ukraine highlights a difficult fact of life for the aviation industry: Flying between Europe and Asia, a high-traffic part of the world, puts planes over numerous conflict zones. Associations representing the industry say that planes deserve safe passage.
Last week’s tragic plane crash in Ukraine has raised a serious question for the airline industry: Should international airlines avoid flying directly over conflict zones?
According to reports after the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, some airlines had avoided the area around the volatile region of eastern Ukraine where U.S. and other officials believe the plane was shot down by a Russian-supplied missile, killing all 298 people on board. But Malaysia Airlines continued to fly over the region despite the risks.
An analysis of the airline’s flight path by the aviation-data firm masFlight for the Associated Press noted that there were modest cost and time savings for the airline by flying over the airspace. Joshua Marks, masFlight CEO, calculated that the airline likely saved $1,500 in fuel costs, along with 10 minutes of flying time, each time it flew over Ukraine.
In comments immediately after the crash, International Air Transport Association Director General and CEO Tony Tyler dismissed this critical line of thought—underlining that “safety is the top priority” for airlines, but also noting that governments play a significant role in keeping planes out of harm’s way.
“No airline will risk the safety of their passengers, crew, and aircraft for the sake of fuel savings,” Tyler said in a statement. “Airlines depend on governments and air traffic control authorities to advise which air space is available for flight, and they plan within those limits.”
Tyler emphasized in his statement that “what happened with MH17 is a tragedy for 298 souls that should not have happened in any airspace.”
A factor in the crash was the airline’s use of the most economical route, which put the plane in airspace above the volatile eastern part of Ukraine. The busy airspace creates challenges for airlines, which must make flight plans with many factors in mind—including traffic in the air and what’s happening on the ground.
Numerous airlines had to change their routes after the attack, and many of them had flown over Ukranian airspace within the past week. The European Cockpit Association, which represents pilots at the European Union level, noted that the route that MH17 took “is the most common route for flights from Europe to Southeast Asia.”
Malaysia Airlines itself is struggling to find the best way to handle the restrictive airspace between Europe and Asia.
On Sunday, the airline’s Flight MH004 took an alternate route around the country, flying instead over Syria—another conflict zone that aviation entities such as the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration strongly discourage airlines from flying over. The airline, however, had taken a route approved by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a United Nations-backed aviation body.
But as aviation blogger Owen Zupp noted to the Sydney Morning Herald, the same could have been said about the Ukranian airspace that MH17 flew in before last week’s attack.
A makeshift memorial at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, where the flight left from. (photo by Roman Boed/Flickr)