A universal no-fly area declared in eastern Ukraine after the downing of Malaysian Air Flight 17 is a rare restriction currently shared only with North Korea, prompting airlines including Deutsche Lufthansa AG to question whether rules for flights over war zones need tightening.
While skies over trouble spots such as Libya and Syria are avoided by some airlines on an ad hoc basis, official airspace closures are generally declared by the countries affected and limited to events such as the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks or volcanic eruptions that can create dangerous ash clouds.
Lufthansa joined calls from Dubai-based Emirates, the No. 1 airline by international traffic, for a response to the Flight MH17 tragedy that confronts concerns about a policy permitting high-altitude flights over areas where wars are raging. Carriers favor a conference that includes the United Nations-backed International Civil Aviation Organization and regulators such as the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and European Aviation Safety Agency, as well as airlines.
“Ukraine is closed now, but apart from that, North Korea is pretty much the only true no-go area for any airline around the world,” said Philip Plantholt of Flightradar24, an aircraft tracking service, adding that the Northeast Asian country was singled out because “no one wants to get caught in a missile testing exercise there.”
Flight MH17 was following a regular route when targeted by a missile strike, having flown the same path five days in the prior week, according to Flightradar24. In the week before the tragedy, some 820 flights traversed eastern Ukraine, with two -- flown by Singapore Airlines Ltd. and Air India Ltd. -- within 16 miles of the Malaysian jet when it was blown up.
While the U.S. stopped short of barring its airlines from flying over the area, it had urged them to monitor the security situation, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said yesterday in a speech at the National Press Club in Washington. Some operators “chose voluntarily” to avoid the wider area after an earlier ban on flights above the Crimean peninsula, he said.
James Hogan, chief executive officer at Etihad Airways PJSC, a specialist in intercontinental flights linking Europe and Asia via its Abu Dhabi hub, said it’s “imperative” that carriers be able to operate in an environment without undue safety risks, and that ICAO, the International Air Transport Association and other impartial bodies should take the lead.
“The MH17 tragedy does change things, which is why a united response is needed to ensure we have the right information at our disposal and maintain safety in the air,” Hogan said in an e-mailed response to questions.
The non-profit Flight Safety Foundation also said that the current system requires a revamp.
If nations “cannot discharge their responsibilities to manage their airspace safely,” ICAO should take the lead in prohibiting airlines from flying, Jon Beatty, president of the Arlington, Virginia-based foundation, said in a statement.
Still, Geneva-based airline-industry trade group IATA said the onus should remain with political leaders and regulators.
“Governments will need to take the lead in reviewing how airspace risk assessments are made,” CEO Tony Tyler said yesterday in a statement.
Specific guidance is made available to pilots via Safety Information Bulletins and “Notices to Airmen” or NOTAMs, though these generally relate to specific hazards, and flights over areas subject to occasional military activity, such as Afghanistan and Yemen, require airlines to balance the risks against the complications of taking alternative routes.
Diversions from the shortest great-circle path add more miles, increasing fuel consumption and forcing carriers to examine new factors including risks from adverse weather and the availability of alternate airports for unscheduled landings.
Still, the cost of avoiding Ukraine on Europe-Asia trips is “negligible,” adding only minutes to flights, according to Mi-Kyung Lee, a spokeswoman for Lufthansa, whose planes crossed the airspace where MH17 was shot down 56 times in the prior week, alongside dozens of other carriers, Flightradar24 data shows.
Preferred routings can change quickly in response to operations on the ground, with large parts of Syria -- which the FAA has urged U.S. carriers to avoid because of reports of surface-to-air missile firings -- today overflown only by local carriers, and Tripoli in Libya, a diversionary airport for jets to South Africa, now being largely avoided after a week of fighting and shelling, according to Flightradar24’s Plantholt.
Charts of recent routings also show that carriers are shifting flights into Iranian airspace from the skies over northern Iraq after al-Qaeda breakaway group Islamic State took control of parts of the country, though they’re still free to persist with operations on the popular Europe-Asia flightpath.
“That’s a well-frequented route, so a lot of carriers will have to ask themselves if they want to continue using it,” Plantholt said.
A small number of restrictions may be self-imposed and political, with many airlines from the Gulf choosing not to fly over Israel to avoid paying royalties. Restrictions issued by aviation agencies are often of a technical nature and less reflective of military dangers.
Airspace over the Crimea was deemed unsafe by EASA in April not because of any missile threat but to reflect the potential for confusion as air traffic control agencies from both Ukraine and Russian claimed authority in the region.
“Only a government can close its airspace, and apart form eastern Ukraine, all airspaces are open,” Dominique Fouda, a spokesman for EASA, said of the European agency’s region. “If an airspace is open, each airline decides for themselves.”
EASA has no evidence of carriers switching to more conservative flightpaths following the downing of Flight MH17, in which 298 passengers and crew were killed, he said.
Having re-routed away from Ukraine, Flight MH4 from Kuala Lumpur to London this week crossed Syria, Flightradar24 says -- a permitted path but one avoided by several major carriers.
“You don’t find British Airways, United Airlines or Emirates flying over,” said Flightradar24’s Mikael Robertsson. “They’ve been avoiding Syria for more than a year.”