Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: Flying through conflict zones unavoidable, say aviation experts

A man points at a world map at a Malaysia Airlines branch office in Jakarta on July 18, 2014 after Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine. -- PHOTO: AFP
A man points at a world map at a Malaysia Airlines branch office in Jakarta on July 18, 2014 after Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine. -- PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - While commercial airlines would re-route a flight to avoid flying through a war zone, passing through some areas of conflict is almost unavoidable, say aviation experts in the United States.

Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was on a "regular flight path for a flight between Europe and Asia" says aviation analyst from the Teal Group Richard Aboulafia. "Nobody would have expected this."

The air corridor over Ukraine has always been a crowded one for flights between Europe and Asia - particularly South-east Asia - and re-routing around the airspace would mean an increase in flight time and fuel costs, reported AFP.

Experts add that re-routing a flight often depends on how dangerous the conflict zone is.

"You would avoid Syria or the South and North Korean border, but it really depends on the severity of the conflict. A lot of people still fly over Israel for example," adds Mr Aboulafia.

On Thursday, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 heading to Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam, crashed in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces have been trying to subdue pro-Russian separatists for months.

Earlier this year, regulatory authorities such as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), an agency of the United Nations, had warned airlines to avoid the Simferopol Flight Information Region (FIR) with ICAO highlighting "a potentially unsafe situation arising from the presence of more than one air traffic service provider" there.

A number of major Asian airlines, including South Korea's Korean Air and Asiana, Australia's Qantas and Taiwan's China Airlines, said that they had started avoiding the area as much as four months ago, when Russian troops moved into Crimea.

Reports say MH17 had in fact avoided the restricted area and if anything, images from show that Thursday's flight had been flying further north of the FIR than usual.

"The course north can be weather related, not an unusual procedure at all," says Michel Merluzeau, managing partner at aerospace consultancy G2 Solutions.

While regulators like the FAA do release recommendations, the choice of flight path ultimately lies with the carrier, says Mr Aboulafia.

Commenting on precautions usually taken to prevent planes from flying over a war zone, Mr Scott Hamilton managing director of aviation consultancy Leeham Co says: "Regulators can issue avoid NOTAMs (Notice to AirMan) and airspace can be closed. Airlines also have the option to re-route at their option."

Since the crash occurred, at least eight airlines have announced that they will avoid flying through Ukrainian airspace, which experts say is the "appropriate" action to take, considering this is not the only incident in this area.

This week alone, Ukraine has accused Russia of shooting a fighter jet and a military cargo plane out of Ukrainian territory.

Delta airlines said on Thursday that "out of an abundance of caution, Delta Air Lines is not routing flights through Ukrainian airspace and is monitoring the situation involving Malaysia Airlines Flight 17".

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.