Malaysia Airlines MH17 Crash: Flight Paths Over War Zones
On July 17, 2014, MH 17 was flying through Ukrainian airspace when it was shot down by a surface-to-air missile. MH17 was flying an allowed route, and at an altitude which had been deemed safe by ICAO at the time. Though the particular area was not covered by a warning, the conflict zone in the eastern region of Ukraine concerned ICAO and the FAA. Both agencies had published notices warning of the dangers of flying in the area. The FAA had prohibited flights over nearby parts of the region in April.
Many airlines had already begun detouring around eastern Ukraine. Korean Air Lines, Qantas Airways, British Airways (except for its Kiev service), Cathay Pacific, and more had rerouted flights since March or April. After MH17 was shot down, almost every airline rerouted its planes around Ukraine.
Airlines do have to cross over war zones during commercial flights. For example, flights regularly go over Iran, Afghanistan, and even Iraq (above 20,000 feet). Airlines and pilots generally try to avoid the most active conflict zones when selecting routes. Despite the active battles, Malaysia Airlines recently sent MH4 over Syria in an effort to avoid Ukraine. While flying over Syria is not prohibited, airlines do not typically fly over the war-torn country because the battles have taken to the air and could come in contact with commercial flights.
Currently, the FAA has flight prohibitions for Ethiopia, Iraq, North Korea, Libya, and Somalia. The only one of these countries with frequent air traffic is Iraq and most are local flights. The FAA and ICAO already issued warnings, similar to those issued for Ukraine before MH17 was shot down, for many other areas.
The FAA is currently warning pilots to avoid Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Sinai Peninsula, Iran (though, the main air corridor is generally not closed by the Iranian government), Kenya, Libya, Mali, Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, and more. Like the warnings issued for Ukraine, often only certain areas or certain altitudes are considered hazardous. According to Flightradar24, Malaysia Airlines sent flights over Iran and Afghanistan this last week. All the flights, like MH17, are above the prohibited altitudes and are not over closed airspace.
Though MH17 was following the suggested notices for Ukraine, it was still shot down. Other airlines did not rely on the FAA and ICAO and decided to avoid Ukrainian airspace without relying on the agencies to close the area. Perhaps all airlines should follow this example and decide if a route is dangerous or not without relying on a prohibition notice. Airlines choosing to avoid the most active conflict zones could hopefully prevent tragedies like the MH17 crash in the future.