A Bad Idea: Flying Passenger Jets Over Ukraine

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 7/18/2014 12:45:00 PM
I am greatly saddened by the loss of Malaysia Airlines MH17 over the airspace of Ukraine. I have been following the disaster since it was reported several hours ago and remain none the wiser about where responsibility lies, and I am afraid that the circumstances may never be fully known. A colleague working on global health also pointed out that several European experts on AIDS en route to a major conference in Australia also lost their lives. It is thus an additional tragedy that a number of the world's top AIDS researchers have met such a fate.

In the fog of war--and there is no doubt that's what's going on in Ukraine--details remain iffy. That said, Malaysian authorities have reasoned that the flight path traversing Ukraine was not listed as restricted airspace by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the UN body tasked with overseeing the industry worldwide:
Malaysia's prime minister Najib Razak says the aircraft's flight route was declared safe by the ICAO. Mr Razak says the International Air Transportation Association had stated that the airspace the aircraft was traversing was not subject to restrictions. The Malaysia Airlines European chief executive says crossing eastern Ukraine was not unusual since the area had not been classified as a war zone for aviation purposes.
To be exact, there are five flight information regions in Ukraine (which provide air traffic advisories in their respective portions of the country's airspace):
Ukrainian upper airspace is divided into five flight information regions: Kiev, Lviv, Dnipropetrovsk, Odessa and Simferopol. Flight MH17 had been transiting the Dnipropetrovsk FIR eastbound, approaching the Russian border, when it lost contact.
On April 2, ICAO issued advice against flying over Simferopol, not Dnipropetrovsk over which it crashed. However, this advice was not due to the risk of being shot down in a conflict zone, but to conflicting flight information region being provided by Ukraine and Russia:
ICAO issued a letter to its member states on April 2 advising of a potentially unsafe situation because of the presence of more than one air traffic services provider in the Simferopol area. Both Russia and Ukraine are apparently offering services in the region and there was concern the situation could lead to safety issues because it could mean two sets of instructions being sent to an aircraft. ICAO issued a statement Thursday stressing that the loss of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 occurred outside of the Simferopol region [my emphasis].
ICAO's statement is here. So the incident occurred in Simferopol where a warning was not raised by ICAO, but I believe that few families of the victims will be comforted by this technicality. Instead, the key points IMHO are as follows:
  1. Regardless of aviation authorities not labeling it a "warzone," Ukraine--more specifically Eastern Ukraine--has been the site of armed hostilities for several months now.
  2. Reports of Ukrainian military aircraft being shot down have been prominent in international news media for over a month
  3. Still, several airlines--especially Asian carriers--nonetheless continued flying over Ukraine.
The UN organization ICAO cannot primarily be blamed for this result, nor the International Air Transport Authority (IATA). Like other international organizations, they are bureaucracies that take a while to respond to current events. If you rely on them to make decisions for you about passenger safety when common sense suggests you should not fly over conflict areas where belligerents possess and use surface-to-air missiles, then I am afraid it was only a matter of time before civilians got hurt.

The time and fuel savings traveling through Ukraine cannot possibly offset what has now happened.

UPDATE: Ukraine has now closed its airspace to commercial traffic.