Malaysia Airlines flight MH17: Why was a passenger plane flying over a conflict zone in Ukraine?
As a Malaysian Airlines passenger jet was 'shot down' over the recently-declared Donetsk People's Republic in eastern Ukraine, many were left begging one question: What was the embattled airline doing flying over a region of the globe that has been consumed by near-civil war for the past six months?
“Exercise extreme caution due to the continuing potential for instability” was the advice offered by the US Federal Aviation Administration to American pilots and airlines operating in and around the region eight weeks ago. The “Notice to Airmen” issued was a response to the worsening crisis in the country.
Nevertheless, civil aviation continued to fly over the conflict zone – along air lanes that normally carry tens of thousands of passengers on hundreds of flights. Malaysia Airlines had operated on the route for many years.
For several hours after the event, all the carrier said was:
“Malaysia Airlines confirms it received notification from Ukrainian ATC that it had lost contact with flight MH17 at 1415 (GMT) at 30km from Tamak waypoint, approximately 50km from the Russia-Ukraine border. Flight MH17 operated on a Boeing 777 departed Amsterdam at 12.15pm (Amsterdam local time) and was estimated to arrive at Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 6.10 am (Malaysia local time) the next day. The flight was carrying 280 passengers and 15 crew onboard.”
The loss of flight MH17 shows that the confidence in the immunity of passenger planes in conflict zones was tragically misplaced.
Since the news broke, many travellers have expressed astonishment that commercial flights should be routed over a conflict zone such as eastern Ukraine. In fact, such flights are routine. Many international air routes pass over areas such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. Airlines are naturally predisposed to fly the most direct route between two points, and on many routes from Europe to Asia that involves eastern Ukraine.
Passenger planes have long been assumed to be safe from the conflict usually for the practical reason that the weapons typically used are far too primitive to reach an aircraft flying six or seven miles high. The factions in such regions are thought unlikely to have the kind of sophisticated weaponry that could reach a target at such altitudes.
“It beggars belief that a large passenger aircraft could be brought down in this way,” said the aviation expert, Chris Yates. “There have to be questions asked of the European safety authorities and why they didn’t route aircraft further north.”
Large swathes of the sky are off-limits to passenger jets because they are military zones, while commercial aviation is channelled along established airways.
Civil aircraft constantly “squawk” - transmit their identity and flight information to notify air-traffic controllers and other pilots. Technology available to anyone with a smartphone allows aircraft easily to be tracked – with real-time details of airline, flight number, heading and altitude provided.
Previous events involving shootings-down of large passenger planes have been the result of mistakes or misadventure. In 1983, a Boeing 747 - flight KE007 from Anchorage to Seoul belonging to Korean Airlines - was shot down by a Soviet fighter after the plane strayed into restricted airspace. Five years later, Iran Air flight 655, an Airbus A300 from Tehran to Dubai, was shot down by an American warship in the Gulf. Some have said the Lockerbie bombing, later in 1988 was a response to this incident.
Airlines moved quickly to reassure passengers that other passenger flights will not be at risk. Virgin Atlantic said that a number of its flight paths will be adjusted to circumvent the region where the crash took place. The airline serves destinations in China and India with flights that often traverse Ukraine. British Airways said: “Our flights are not using Ukrainian airspace, with the exception of our once a day service between Heathrow and Kiev. We are keeping those services under review, but Kiev is several hundred kilometres from the incident site.”
Air France, Lufthansa, Aeroflot and Turkish Airlines have also said they will divert aircraft around Ukrainian airspace. Delays are likely to be less than an hour, but could build up to cause some disruption to long-haul aviation.
The make-up of the 280 passengers on board is certain to comprise a broad mix of nationalities, possibly including a small number of British passengers who had taken morning flights to Amsterdam and changed to the flight to Kuala Lumpur. Many Dutch travellers, heading to Malaysia or nations beyond such as Indonesia and the Philippines, are likely to be among the passengers. Since Malaysia Airlines has a network of flights from its hub to Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, there may well have been a number of Australian passengers. Reports also suggested that 23 American passengers were on board, as well as four French citizens.
For any airline to lose two passenger aircraft within a few months is extremely rare. For a pair of catastrophes to occur when the planes are cruising normally at high altitude is unprecedented.
Malaysia Airlines was already suffering commercially as a result of the loss of MH370. The destruction of MH17 is likely also to have severe consequences, even if the airline itself is found to be blameless.
Passengers booked to fly on Malaysia Airlines, or any other long-haul carrier, who no longer wish to travel, have little option but to cancel and lose some or all of the fare. “Disinclination to travel” is not regarded as grounds for airlines to relax their conditions on cancellation, nor for claims to be made on travel insurance.