A man points at the Ukrainian airspace on an interactive map of flights over Europe, at the Eurocontrol headquarters, the European Organization for the safety of air navigation, in Brussels, Belgium, Friday, July 18, 2014.
A Mashable investigation shows that aircraft from many nations, including the U.S., Europe and the Middle East, routinely fly at high altitudes over tense conflict zones such as Ukraine, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. In the wake of the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on Thursday, such overflights may be reexamined.
Aviation regulators, including the Federal Aviation Administration, issue warnings to pilots based on information about any hazards, including military activity in the area of a planned route of flight. For example, in the days leading up to the Malaysia Airlines crash, the FAA banned American carriers from flying over eastern Ukraine, where Flight 17 was shot down, at altitudes below 32,000 feet.
Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was flying at 33,000 feet when it was blown out of the sky.
That plane was not alone in that area at the time, either.
According to data from the flight-tracking company FlightRadar24, there were 55 planes that flew over eastern Ukraine around where Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was hit on Thursday, including those from Qatar, Emirates, Etihad, Austrian Airlines, Thai Airways, Jet Airways and Pakistan International Airways.
A Singapore Airlines flight from Copenhagen to Singapore was within 15 miles of Flight 17 at the time of the crash.
The FAA's bans, which do not apply to international airlines, were imposed using orders that are known as "notices to airmen," or NOTAM. On July 14, a NOTAM was issued for U.S. air carriers to limit flights over eastern Ukraine to altitudes above 32,000 feet. Previous NOTAMs had entirely closed off the airspace over Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in March.
Subsequent NOTAMS issued in the wake of the crash have closed off all altitudes to U.S.-based carriers, and data shows that most airlines are now flying around Ukraine — either over the Russian side of the border or south across Turkey — to cross between Europe and the Middle East or Asia.
According to Don Biener, a retired American Airlines captain who flew the Boeing 777 on international routes until 2003, the NOTAMs issued prior to the disaster did not close off the airspace where the Malaysian aircraft was shot down. It wasn't until after the crash that the FAA issued a NOTAM closing off entire sections of airspace, known as "flight information regions" or FIRs, to U.S. carriers, stating:
POTENTIALLY HAZARDOUS SITUATION - SIMFEROPOL (UKFV) AND DNEPROPETROVSK (UKDV) FLIGHT INFORMATION REGIONS (FIR) UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE, DUE TO RECENT EVENTS, ALL FLIGHT OPERATIONS BY UNITED STATES (U.S.) OPERATORS WITHIN THE SIMFEROPOL (UKFV) AND DNEPROPETROVSK (UKDV) FIRS ARE PROHIBITED. EVENTS HAVE INDICATED THE POTENTIAL FOR CONTINUED HAZARDOUS ACTIVITIES.
But before the ban went into effect, when the Malaysia Airlines captain would have received his flight plan from airline dispatchers in Amsterdam, Biener says that there was little reason to question the route of flight.
Biener says if American Airlines airline dispatchers, who compile flight plans for specific flights, had provided him with the NOTAMs that were in effect at that time, and a route that included flying over eastern Ukraine, he most likely would have taken that route.
“If dispatch had given me a flight plan with the NOTAMs included, I would have taken that trip myself and thought nothing of it,”“If dispatch had given me a flight plan with the NOTAMs included, I would have taken that trip myself and thought nothing of it,” Biener told Mashable in an interview. “The company approved that flight plan.”
Malaysia Airlines says that in addition to being sanctioned by its dispatchers, the flight plan was approved by Eurocontrol, which is the air traffic control organization in Europe. On its Facebook page, the airline stated: "MH17’s flight plan was approved by Eurocontrol, who are solely responsible for determining civil aircraft flight paths over European airspace."
According to Biener, pilots rarely overrule aircraft dispatchers unless there is a weather issue enroute. He said he never had to reroute "for a foreign armed conflict" in his years of flying both for the military and for the airlines.
Passenger flights routinely fly over Afghanistan and Iraq
The issue of commercial aircraft flying over conflict zones is not limited to the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. Data shows that U.S. airlines and many others routinely fly over Iraq, wherefighting has been fierce in recent weeks and some Iraqi Air Force aircraft have been downed. They also fly over Syria, where rebel fighters have repeatedly downed Syrian Air Force jets using missiles and other ordinance.
For example, on July 16, Delta Airlines Flight 8 from Atlanta to Dubai (also a Boeing 777) avoided Ukrainian airspace, but flew over both Syria and Iraq on its way to its final destination, according to records from FlightAware.com, another flight-tracking company.
Some airlines were avoiding Ukrainian airspace before the Malaysia Airlines disaster. For example, British Airways Flight 11, from London Heathrow to Singapore, has been alternating between routes to the north and south of the country in recent days. However, it has flown over Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan, which are both areas beset by conflict.
Avoiding conflict zones entirely could cost airlines millions in fuel costs, since they prefer to fly the most direct routes possible. However, the cost of nearly 300 lives lost could amount tobillions of dollars in liability claims, in addition to incalculable grief and suffering.
Travel editor Jessica Plautz contributed reporting for this story.
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