In the aftermath of the horrific fall of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine Thursday, the United States Federal Aviation Administration warned airlines not to fly over that airspace, and it received voluntary agreements from airlines that they would not. But why were they flying over war zones to begin with?
USA Today reports that the FAA received affirmative responses from American airlines, confirming they would voluntarily stay out of the area in which MH17 was shot down. “The FAA is monitoring the situation to determine whether further guidance is necessary,” the agency said officially. The report that airlines were voluntarily staying out of the area due to the threat of being shot down followed a statement from the International Air Transport Association, which claimed that “based on the information currently available it is believed that the airspace that the aircraft was traversing was not subject to restrictions.”
It appears barely believable to those following the situation on the ground in Ukraine that international airline monitors were not aware that Ukraine was facing a significant military effort against groups of pro-Russian rebels that are not officially affiliated with the military of any state and, as such, highly unpredictable.
The FAA was aware, and it warned American airlines to stay out of the area. In April, the FAA issued a warning to all U.S. airlines that the airspace above Ukraine should be avoided at all costs. The warning applied mainly to Crimea, however, which at the time was being annexed into Russia, and, according to the USA Today report, was issued “because of concerns of air traffic control,” not because of the violence on the ground. The warning was also a voluntary one, not compulsory, as the FAA has little control over international flying restrictions.
The MH17 incident has raised many questions regarding why an airline would voluntarily put passengers in danger by flying over a war zone, and the simple answer appears to be that it is cheaper. According to one aviation expert speaking to the UK Telegraph, the route over Ukraine was shorter and, thus, cheaper: “Malaysia Airlines, like a number of other carriers, have been continuing to use it because it is a shorter route, which means less fuel and therefore less money. … I expect the area will be declared a no fly-zone and aircraft will have no choice but to take a different, longer route.”
For Malaysia Airlines, cost-effectiveness was especially important before MH17; after the disappearance of MH370 in March, shares of Malaysia Airlines stock dropped to an all-time low, and many speculated the airline would not survive the incident. Shares dropped 18% between Thursday and Friday, however, cementing the consensus that the airline’s days are numbered.
The airline industry is notoriously difficult to make a profit in, even without the extraordinary circumstances of Malaysia Airlines. Thus, experts speaking to Newsweek say travel over war zones is common: “Hundreds of commercial airplanes fly over Iraq every day.” David Ison, assistant professor of aeronautics and chair of the aeronautical science master’s program at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, told the publication that, in his day, “We used to fly over live fire.” Pilots, he noted, were usually not concerned, as they considered the planes to be flying too high above the ground for surface-to-air missiles to hit. However, given that Francis Gary Powers was shot down in 1960 by Soviet air defense while flying a U-2 spy plane at the extremely high altitude of 70,000 feet, the possibility of danger should have been one worth consideration.
This was certainly not the case on this flight. Airlines are now, finally, avoiding the area, lest the culprits shoot into the sky at passenger aircraft again. But the situation has caused alarm among travelers, and certainly among would-be patrons of Malaysia Airlines, raising numerous questions as to the benefit of endangering an aircraft–and lives–by flying it over turbulent areas.