The Malaysia Airlines plane shot down over Ukraine—at an altitude that was considered safe—has made airlines jumpy and eager for a better way to assess the risks of flying over conflict-ridden countries. Current protocols lay the responsibility of flight safety primarily on airlines, which consult with governments and other local authorities to determine the risks. That’s one reason Delta Air Lines, for example, canceled its flights to Israel hours before the Federal Aviation Administration imposed a U.S. flight ban on Tel Aviv service on July 22 due to a Hamas-fired rocket that landed near the airport.
For U.S. airlines, the FAA has mandated that certain areas are off-limits because of flight risks: Ethiopia, Libya, North Korea, and Ukraine. Flying across other places of unrest, however, becomes far murkier and a matter of assessing local conditions. Consider Syria, which has endured a bloody civil war for more than three years. The FAA “strongly discourages” flights over the country but does not prohibit them if a U.S. carrier obtains “current threat information” and notifies the agency with specific details about the flight. Want to fly over Iran, as some U.S. airlines have? It’s allowed, but airlines “should be familiar with current conditions in the Middle East,” the FAA says. Yemen, at 24,000 feet or below, is also a flight risk, according to the FAA.
The rules differ for European and Asian airlines, which are not bound by the FAA’s edicts on where U.S. carriers may fly. Lufthansa, for instance, has flights into and over Iraq but canceled its service to Israel for more than three days to avoid the dangers of Hamas rockets.
Many other airlines routinely stay away from Iraq but fly dozens of aircraft over Iran and Syria each day. Some also consider Afghanistan and Pakistan safe for overflights. (The FAA also does not prohibit U.S. commercial flights over those two countries.) “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,” Philip Plantholt, an executive with aircraft tracker Flightradar24, told Bloomberg News.
This snapshot of the region on Friday evening shows the flow of air traffic around Syria and Afghanistan:
The hodgepodge of safety assessments is likely to change soon. On Tuesday, in response to the Malaysia Air Flight 17 tragedy, the International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations-sponsored agency, will convene a summit on the risks arising from conflict zones. Representatives from airlines, airports, and air traffic control will attend the gathering in Montreal. Days after the plane was shot down, the International Air Transport Association, a global airlines’ trade group, was calling for governments “to take the lead in reviewing how airspace risk assessments are made.”
“The meeting will discuss appropriate actions to be pursued in order to more effectively mitigate potential risks to civil aviation arising from conflict zones,” the IATA said in a statement on Friday.