Airspace Over Ukraine Was Not Considered Unsafe

The U.S. and other countries are restricting flights over eastern Ukraine after a MH17 jet was shot down. But experts agree that the airline had every reason to believe its aircraft would be safe.

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Most airlines are now diverting their planes away from the Ukrainian-Russian border to avoid the area where the Malaysia Airlines plane was shot-down. The Federal Aviation Administration banned U.S. operations in the air space around Crimea back in April. Aviation authorities in other countries warned about flying through parts of the region, too. But those restricted flight zones are some distance away from where flight 17 went down. NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: The most direct route to flight from many cities in Europe to destinations in Southeast Asia goes right over eastern Ukraine and its border with Russia. Because of the escalating conflict there, some airlines, including British Airways and Air France, decided some time ago to route their planes around the hostile region. But Malaysia Airlines considered the route completely safe. And as the company's vice president for Europe, Huib Gorter, told reporters Friday, the airline was not alone.

HUIB GORTER: It's commonly used every day by many airlines. It's been declared safe by ICAO, which is the International Civil Aviation Organization. And the crossing was subject - according to IATA, was not subject to any restrictions.

SCHAPER: IATA is the International Air Transport Association. CEO Tony Tyler says in a statement that airlines depend on governments and air-traffic control authorities to advise which airspace is available for flight and they plan within those limits. It is similar to driving a car, Tyler added. If the road is open, you assume that it is safe. If it is closed, you find an alternate route. The FAA had warned airlines not to fly in the airspace around Crimea and adjacent seas. ICAO, which is the aviation arm of the U.N., had issued similar warnings about that area but not 200 miles to the northeast, where flight 17 went down. Many aviation safety experts agree the Malaysia Airlines flight and the 298 people on board should have expected to be safe.

JOHN COX: Lots and lots of airplanes had gone overhead in the preceding months without incident.

SCHAPER: John Cox is a former plane crash investigator and now heads an aviation consulting firm. He points out Ukrainian officials did restrict the airspace below 32,000 feet because they were only concerned about shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. They don't have the range to reach higher-flying commercial jets like this one.

COX: Up until yesterday, we have never seen a missile with the capability of reaching 30-plus-thousand feet ever fired at a commercial airline.

SCHAPER: And Cox says whoever operated this sophisticated weapon system should have been able to first identify the plane as a civilian aircraft.

COX: The Malaysian flight 17 was on a published airway. It was at the altitude it was supposed to be. It was in contact with aircraft control. It was on the same path that many other airplanes have been on. For someone to switch on a targeting radar and not realize that was a commercial airline, I do not understand. It's unconscionable. I do not understand how that could happen.

SCHAPER: This is only the fourth time in the history of commercial aviation that and anti-aircraft missile has taken down a civilian airliner. The three other incidents were cases of mistaken identity of jets flying at much lower altitudes. Gil Sinclair, department chair of the School of Aviation at Western Michigan University says flying over war zones is actually pretty common.

GIL SINCLAIR: Several airlines used to fly over Bosnia above a certain altitude when the conflict was going on there. Commercial flights are still operating over Afghanistan. So it's not unusual. No.

SCHAPER: But now the U.S. and other nations are prohibiting flights over the Ukrainian conflict area. And some airlines are taking it upon themselves to give the area an even wider berth. David Schaper, NPR News.

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