Why was MH17, a civilian airliner, flying over a war zone?
THE news that a passenger jet had been shot down on July 17th, apparently following the bungled targeting of a surface-to-air missile, was met with horror. Along with many other questions about the tragedy, some have wondered what Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was doing flying over eastern Ukraine, which has been the setting of a low-intensity war for several months. Since the downing of MH17, commercial jets have steered clear of Ukraine (as can be seen on flight-tracking websites such as flightradar24, pictured). But how often do passenger planes normally fly over war zones? And how risky is it?
Taking a detour to avoid an area of conflict means spending more time in the air, burning more fuel. So airlines go direct if they consider it safe. Malaysia Airlines was not the only operator crossing eastern Ukraine at the time of the tragedy. L980, the route in question, was the flight path chosen by many passenger jets travelling between the big cities of Europe and South Asia. In fact, wars usually have little impact on commercial flights. As fighting raged in Afghanistan, for instance, in the skies above it was mostly business as usual for the world’s airlines.
Sometimes a no-fly zone is declared, as in the case of Libya (or previously in Iraq, for a time). The International Civil Aviation Organisation, a UN body, and national aviation authorities also publish “notices to airmen” (NOTAMs), warning of potential hazards. Airlines file flight plans with air-traffic controllers, choosing routes in accordance with NOTAMs and other “rules of the road”, such as not overflying sensitive military installations. A recent NOTAM put the eastern edge of Ukrainian airspace off limits up to 32,000 feet, following an escalation of military air operations in the region. MH17 was flying at 33,000 feet. A previous NOTAM had put Crimea off limits, but only because responsibility for air-traffic control over the peninsula was uncertain after the Russian annexation.
In the weeks before MH17’s downing, several Ukrainian planes and helicopters had been shot down. But although MH17 had reportedly flown a few hundred miles north of its planned course, in order to avoid a thunderstorm, its altitude should have marked it out as a passenger plane. No one thought that commercial jets would be in any danger over eastern Ukraine. So far no airline has gone as far as Israel’s flag carrier, El Al, which equips its planes with sensors to detect when radars lock on to them as targets. Given that the downing of MH17 seems to have been an accident, it is unlikely that other airlines will adopt such technology soon. But it will be a long while before they resume flights over eastern Ukraine.