As investigations continue into who brought down the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 with 298 people on board – including at least 28 Australians – questions must be asked as to why the plane was flying over the troubled Ukraine region in the first place.
Malaysia Airlines has confirmed the Boeing 777-200 departed Amsterdam airport at 12.15pm local time and was scheduled to arrive in Kuala Lumpur at 6.10am, local Malaysian time.
And International Air Transportation Association has stated that the airspace the aircraft was traversing was not subject to restrictions.
Was it safe to fly there?
The prima facie evidence says that it was not safe, so somebody made a mistake. ICAO issued advisories weeks ago that airlines should avoid this area.
Other airlines have already said that they changed their air routes in response to that advisory, but for reasons yet unknown Malaysia Airlines didn’t change its routes over the Ukraine region.
One of the other factors to influence this tragedy is that local airspace managers for that area didn’t close all the airspace over the region; they only closed the airspace below 32,000ft.
Flight MH17 was reported to be flying at a height of 33,000ft, just 1,000ft above the restricted airspace over Ukraine.
ICAO has also issued a statement today saying the aircraft was not in the restricted zone.
ICAO recently issued a State letter advising States and their air operators of a potentially unsafe situation arising from the presence of more than one air traffic services provider in the Simferopol Flight Information Region (FIR). The loss of MH17 occurred outside of the Simferopol FIR and ICAO stands ready to support the accident investigation upon request.
But if the airspace had been closed completely then the plane would not have been able to get clearance for a flight plan over the area.
The fact that the airspace wasn’t completely closed meant there would be no comment to the flight plan when it was lodged with air traffic services in Amsterdam who would then pass it on to other air services along the route.
Safety comes first
Airlines should be taking all the precautions they can with commercial flight plans. They are supposed to take action to protect their passengers, their crew and their aircraft – their three primary assets – and if you’ve got intelligence and advisories saying this is an unsafe area, then they should avoid it and find a different route.
The risks of flying in any conflict zone are just too great for any commercial airline, not least that a passenger plane can get shot down as in this case.
As for the parties involved in any dispute in a conflict zone they could be flying their own high-speed aircraft around with no warnings signals and no lights. That makes them difficult to see and the risk of a collision, especially with any night flights.
So you just don’t go near these zones when there is an advisory of a conflict, and you do all your can to minimise the risk by avoiding these areas.
Other routes available
The only reason I can think to continue to go through there is because you’ve made a conscious decision to travel the shortest flight between two points. You do that to reduce fuel costs, but when something makes that route a higher risk you alter the flight path.
Outside of any conflict, the airspace over Ukraine is just part of the normal air routes to Europe and a reasonable route for many airlines to minimise flight path distance. At any other time there would be no problems flying in this area.
From my experience and involvement in the past with Qantas and prior to that Australian Airlines you take what intelligence you could get and sit with analysts and specialists to work out what to do about any problem. You don’t just fly through the middle of a conflict, because you are putting your passengers, crew and aircraft at risk.
You select a route that is more appropriate and you take that. Airlines will spend thousands of dollars more on fuel on safer routes to not put people at risk.
For the passengers and crew of MH17 they probably never knew what hit them. There was no time for the pilots to issue any distress call.
As for those who may have fired on MH17, from reports of the intercepts of telephone conversation, they probably didn’t know they had fired on a commercial plane.
From the conversation they were looking for evidence that it was a military aircraft and they probably didn’t know what they had hit until it was too late.
All commercial airlines would now be wise to stay clear of the area and should be reviewing the handling of any security intelligence.
They should have daily threat meetings to look at what is being forwarded to them so they can take appropriate action to get their aircraft on routes away from any conflict zone.
Malaysia Airlines will not be the only airline to ignore the warnings and there will be others who have made judgements to keep going through that area, though I would be astonished if they were that many.