Ukraine Attack Challenges Assumptions on Flight Routes

Striking a passenger jet on a high-altitude route with a missile was once such an unthinkable act that governments rarely forced airlines to alter flight paths away from areas with armed conflicts.

Commercial flights still pass over Syria and Afghanistan without incident. And until this week, at least 100 aircraft a day plied a route over eastern Ukraine, which has for months been grappling with an insurgency near its border with Russia.

The use of a surface-to-air missile to hit Malaysian Air Flight MH17 on July 17, killing 298 people, is focusing attention on when governments should redraw flight paths. Governments and aviation safety specialists had assumed that terrorists couldn’t hit a plane at cruising altitudes, typically above 30,000 feet (9 kilometers), because they have lacked weapons needed to reach that height.

“That really changes the equation with regard to the threat to civil aviation that’s on widely traveled flight paths,” said Rebecca MacPherson, a former U.S. Federal Aviation Administration lawyer who participated in agency decisions on route restrictions.

The possibility that missiles could be used by terrorists or rebels to shoot down planes needs to be considered in the future when governments decide whether to close airways, MacPherson said.

While airliners at cruising altitude have been shot down before, those incidents have been accidental attacks by military agencies. Commercial-airplane security measures had instead focused on the risks from militants with shoulder-fired missiles at low-flying planes during landings and takeoffs.

Unprecedented Attack

“I’m not sure anybody could have predicted this,” said Randall Larsen, chief executive officer of the WMD Center, a Washington-based non-profit terrorism research group. “This has changed civil aviation. The question is: How are airlines going to get this information in the future?”

Individual countries oversee where airlines may fly and there is no international agency imposing route restrictions.

The FAA on April 3 ordered U.S. carriers not to fly in southern areas of Ukraine. Russia had claimed its air-traffic controllers oversaw the area, and the FAA said it feared there would be confusion. The restriction didn’t apply where the Malaysian Air missile attack occurred.

In recent days, Ukraine had prohibited flights from 32,000 feet and below in the area following attacks on military aircraft. The Malaysian Air plane was at 33,000 feet.

Airlines depend on governments to ensure flight routes are safe, Tony Tyler, chief executive officer of the Geneva-based International Air Transport Association, said yesterday.

Closed Road

“It is very similar to driving a car,” Tyler, whose group represents carriers accounting for 84 percent of global air traffic, said in a statement. “If the road is open, you assume that it is safe. If it’s closed, you find an alternate route.”

Following the July 17 attack, the Ukrainians along with European and U.S. regulators closed the area to air traffic.

A missile from the eastern region of Ukraine took down the flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, U.S. President Barack Obama said yesterday. U.S. military and intelligence officials said that while they’re still investigating, it increasingly appears Flight 17 was downed by a Russian-made surface-to-air missile called SA-11 Gadfly, or by its local name, Buk-M.

The radar-guided weapon can reach altitudes as high as about 72,000 feet, according to the website.

Little Change

The plane’s cruising altitude would have been out of reach of the smaller shoulder-fired missiles terrorists have attempted to use against passenger planes in the past.

Because missile systems capable of reaching higher altitudes are far more difficult to operate and haven’t fallen into hands of traditional terrorist groups, others familiar with aviation security said they doubted the need for new flight restrictions.

“I don’t think this is going to have much of a change,” Rick Nelson, a senior associate at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in an interview.

Airlines under pressure to keep fuel costs down by flying more direct routes won’t want to add restrictions without hard evidence that similar strikes are likely to occur again, said Nelson, who served on the National Security Council under President George W. Bush.

The missile system used in the attack required a radar system, launching pad and a control facility, John Pike, director of the military information website, said in an interview.

Ukrainian Separatists

Ukrainian separatists, who are closely aligned with Russia’s military, operated the missile, Pike said. There aren’t any other regions around the world where insurgents or terrorists have access to such weapons and have the training and sophistication to operate them, he said.

“How many theaters of operation currently have radar-guided missiles actively employed around the world right now? None,” he said. “I think it’s a one-off that’s going to have no impact on passenger flights.”

Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, told a 15-member council yesterday in New York that blame for the attack lay with Ukraine’s decision leaving the airways open.

“The state must provide aviation information necessary for ensuring the security of aviation,” Churkin said.

While the FAA can issue flight restrictions for U.S. carriers, other nations don’t have to follow suit, said MacPherson, who is now a lawyer at Jones Day in Washington.

It is often difficult for the FAA to impose restrictions on airspace because other U.S. agencies don’t always agree, she said.

“The FAA tends to be very conservative in assessing that risk,” said MacPherson, who advised the agency on flight-restrictions. “But other portions of the U.S. government might want to massage things a little bit differently.”

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