Airlines including Deutsche Lufthansa AG (LHA) and Singapore Airlines Ltd. that had been using the same route over eastern Ukraine as the downed Malaysian jetliner were ordered to avoid an area previously deemed safe.
Carriers including Qantas Airways Ltd. (QAN) and Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. (293) had already diverted away from skies above clashes between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists, leaving one-quarter to a third of usual daily flights still operating.
The Malaysian Airlines Boeing Co. (BA) 777 was shot down late yesterday, threatening to escalate tensions in Europe’s worst geopolitical crisis since the Cold War. Regional air-traffic manager Eurocontrol has now routed all planes away from the area astride a busy flightpath between Europe and Asia, as Malaysian authorities defended the use of a route that wasn’t blacklisted.
“The airspace the aircraft was traversing was unrestricted,” Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai said today at a press conference in Kuala Lumpur, adding that the carrier had followed the same journey plan many times. “I think since it’s an approved route it is safe and that’s the reason why we have been using this route.”
Out of 16 carriers in the Association of Asia-Pacific Airlines, 15 were regularly using the same airspace, with several European operators also flying through it, he said.
Computer-generated images supplied by FlightRadar24, which monitors planes in real time, show Singapore Airlines Ltd. (SIA) Flight SQ351 from Copenhagen -- also using a 777-200 -- and Air India Ltd. Flight AI113 -- a Boeing 787 flying from Delhi to Birmingham -- close to the site of the incident minutes before.
“There were for sure commercial aircraft within a 25 kilometer radius,” said Philip Plantholt, who is responsible for business development at FlightRadar24. He said that the International Civil Aviation Organization had asked only that airlines avoid flying below 31,000 feet in the region, a level which Flight MH17 was more than 1,000 feet above.
Still, 200 to 300 of the daily flights using the route had diverted elsewhere in recent months, leaving about 100 still operating, involving about 60 different carriers over a week, FlightRadar24 said. An image from 4 hours 40 minutes after the crash showed the entire region clear of aircraft.
Germany’s Lufthansa said it had been using the airspace and had changed flightpaths with immediate effect. Its Austrian unit suspended services from Vienna to Dnepropetrovsk and Kharkov in Ukraine, as well as Rostov and Krasnodar in Russia.
Dubai-based Emirates, the world’s biggest airline on long-haul routes, immediately halted flights to the Ukrainian capital Kiev, it said, adding that services to the U.S. and Europe don’t cross the airspace in question.
Qantas hasn’t used the route for a few months, said Andrew McGinnes, a spokesman for the Australian carrier, while Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific said it has been detouring for “quite some time.” Korean Air Lines Co. (003490) and Asiana Airlines Inc. (020560) said in statements they have been avoiding the area since March 3.
The attack on the Malaysian Airline System Bhd. (MAS) aircraft killed all 298 people aboard the Amsterdam-Kuala Lumpur flight, with the disaster coming just four months after Malaysian Flight MH 370 bound for Beijing disappeared without a trace.
Ukraine’s state security service said it intercepted phone conversations among pro-Russia militants discussing the missile strike about 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the Russian border.
U.S. officials said the weapon was most likely a Russian-made model used widely in Eastern Europe.
Airlines perform a risk assessment for every area of airspace, said Markus Wahl, a spokesman for German union Vereinigung Cockpit, and pilots can refuse to accept a specific flight plan, usually on the basis of economic considerations regarding factors such as the weather and journey duration.
Regulators, air-traffic controllers and airlines might have been more cautious given earlier missile firings in eastern Ukraine involving military planes, said Brent Spencer, director of the air-traffic control program at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona
“The fact that the airspace is not restricted doesn’t mean you don’t need to give extra consideration,” he said. “You might want to think twice about flying through an airspace where there’s somebody shooting missiles.”