Flying is statistically by far the safest means of transportation.
However, some parts of the world’s airspace are more precarious than others. From State-to-operator information and NOTAMs to concessions due to practicality, we take a look at what goes into route planning when conflicts need to be considered and what can happen when information is insufficient, or wires get crossed.
Last week, Israel redirected flights from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport due to the escalating conflict with Hamas. While the country has the most sophisticated missile defense system in the world, known as the Iron Dome, the decision was a reminder of the potentially tragic outcomes of civilian aircraft passing through or over zones of conflict.
From Korean Air Lines Flight KE007 and Iran Air IR655 to Malaysian Airlines MH17 and Ukraine International PS752 on this side of the century, misdirected fire sometimes leads to massive civilian casualties.
And yet, airlines sometimes continue to fly to and above areas of ongoing conflict and unrest. What precautions are taken to keep aircraft and passengers safe, and through what mechanisms are the decisions made?
ICAO regulations for State-to-operator
Most of the decisions on what routes to take are decided by airlines and pilots.
When planning a flight route, the on-ground planning team usually calculates the most fuel-efficient path depending on atmospheric conditions. Meanwhile, in certain parts of the world, they also need to take the situation on the ground into consideration, as well as potential ‘no-fly zones’.
There are international standards for sharing information on local and potentially precarious situations on the ground.
Accordingto the Chicago Treaty setting up the International Civilian Aviation Organisation (ICAO), its member states are obliged to ‘promptly communicate potential risks to safe and secure civil aviation operations in their sovereign or delegated airspace’.
This is done via what is called the Aviation Security Point of Contact (POC) Network, or through regional contingency mechanisms. The ICAO also has a specific document, numbered 10084, which outlines State-to-operator and State-to-State sharing procedures, as well as airline risk assessment.
Updated conditions that could potentially affect the safety along the route are relayed to pilots via so-called NOTAMs (Notice to Airmen). These are generated and disseminated by government agencies and airport operators to staff and crew concerned with flight operations.
Other than immediate conflict and missile launches, they can inform of closed runways, bird flocks, lasers, military exercises, volcanic ash (specifically known as ASHTAM), software patches, and temporary flight restrictions due to passing head-of-state aircraft.
Safety depending on accurate information
Airlines also conduct their own security assessments, often by bringing in third-party consultant agencies. However, all well-informed decisions are based on access to reliable, accurate, and up-to-date information, such as what kind of weapon capabilities fighting groups in a given area have access to.
When this is not available, risk assessment can sometimes be flawed, as the tragic case of MH17 shot down over eastern Ukraine in July 2014 demonstrates.
The area over which the Boeing 777-200 was passing had a no-fly zone in place for up to 32,000 feet. The aircraft was cruising at 33,000 when a ground-to-air missile hit it, and all 283 passengers and 15 crew on board were killed.
At the same time, contingency plans must be in place for unscheduled events while flying over an area of uncertain conditions. For instance, when only certain flight paths and levels are advisable, such as over Somalia or Western Sahara.
What happens in case of an emergency, such as an engine failure or depressurization of the cabin?
Potential risk vs. practicality
Assessments can also differ from country to country and airline to airline. For instance, most national aviation agencies classify Syrian airspace as high risk due to the potential of missiles erroneously locking on to civilian aircraft, whether from military jets or ground-to-air. The FAA even warns that the threat is extended to neighboring flight information regions (FIRs) in the Eastern Mediterranean.
However, in 2019, Qatar Airways once more began flying through Syrian airspace on its routes from Doha to Beirut and Larnaca in an effort to cut down on detour times caused by the then two-year-long neighborhood blockade. At the time of the decision, Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker told Reuters, while ensuring that the restored routes posed no safety issue, that,
“This is all about the blockade. We are blockaded, and so we have to find ways to fulfill the requirements of my country. It’s very simple.”
Dual ATC and pre-authorization
Generally, the Eastern Mediterranean is a tricky area to navigate. Due to the conflict and lack of recognition of sovereignty between the Greek and the Turkish part of Cyprus, pilots need to listen to air traffic controllers from both sides while diplomatically navigating the airspace above Nicosia.
Pivoting back to the air defense system of Israel, all aircraft must receive entry approval from Israeli ATC about 180 miles before entering the country’s airspace. Otherwise, they risk having an Israeli fighter jet outside of the windows, demanding identification and justification.
Something similar occurred in September 1983. Korean Air Lines Flight KE007 was on its way from New York to Seoul via Anchorage when it entered Soviet prohibited airspace due to a navigational mistake. The USSR forces mistook the unidentified 747-200 for a US spy plane and took it down with air-to-air missiles. All 246 passengers and 23 crew on board were killed.
When things go wrong.
The immediate loss of life is tragic in and of its own. Just as any casualty of war, the trauma reverberates and extends through generations. However, ‘mistaken identity’ shoot-downs also generate more tension between the actors involved or responsible. While only material, it may also cause revenue problems stemming from lack of overflight fees as airlines choose different routes.
Following the missile launch against Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752 by Iranian forces shortly after take-off from Tehran in January 2020, many carriers stopped flying over the country. Due to potential airstrikes in the broader area, carriers such as Lufthansa, Air France, Singapore Airlines, and Qantas all stopped flying over Iraqi and Irani airspace.
Earlier this year, Iran announced a plan to encourage foreign airlines to make use of the country’s airspace by providing incentive tariffs. Qatar Airways has increased its number of flights over Iran as a result, and discussions are ongoing with Turkish Airlines.
Flight PS752 is not the only tragedy to result from tensions between the US and countries in the region. In July 1988, Iran Air Flight 665 was traveling from Tehran to Dubai when it was shot down by a missile fired from the USS Vincennes. All 290 people on board the aircraft were killed.
The US insists that it misidentified the Airbus A300 as a possible enemy F-14 Tomcat and that it made over ten unanswered calls. Iran, on the other hand, says that the pilots identified themselves as civilian. The black box was never recovered.