How Is The Airline Industry Disrupted By Conflict Zones?

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NPR's Eric Westervelt speaks to aviation journalist William McGee about how worldwide conflict zones are affecting the airline industry.


It's been a bad couple of weeks, actually, a bad year for aviation. Starting with the disappearance of Malaysia flight 370, then the recent shoot-down over eastern Ukraine, and the closure of Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion airport over Hamas rocket-fire. Then this week, two fatal crashes - one in Taiwan and another Mali. All this could make 2014 one of the worst years for passenger fatalities. William McGee is an aviation journalist. He says recent events once again raise concerns about flying through conflict zones.

WILLIAM MCGEE: It's important to note that with the events in the Ukraine, with Malaysia, that back in April, three months prior, the Federal Aviation Administration put out a prohibition. Not just a warning, but blocked off certain airspace in the Ukraine and said U.S. airlines couldn't fly there. And so, you know, that raises the question - why are some airlines flying over war zones or hotspots and why aren't others?

WESTERVELT: But the U.S. warning from the FAA was just for a certain part of eastern Ukraine - Crimea region - it was not for the area where the Malaysian airline was going. Is that correct?

MCGEE: That's true. It was very specific. In fact, the warning was latitude and longitude. But at the same time, U.S. carriers have sort of expanded that zone on their own. I spoke to a dispatcher this week for a major airline who said the Ukraine is in the news right now, but we have to think about all kinds of places. They're worried about North Korea, they're worried about the China Sea, they're worried about, you know, obviously Afghanistan, Iraq. Israel has certainly heated up in the last couple of weeks. But if you're flight planning, it's a small world in some ways, but there are a lot of areas to worry about.

WESTERVELT: But the FAA rules are just for U.S. carriers and there are world aviation bodies, but do you think there's a need to push for tougher flight protocols worldwide?

MCGEE: I do actually. There's an organization that's known as ICAO. It's the International Civil Aviation Organization, and it's chartered by the United Nations. And ICAO, you know, on the one hand does excellent work in that it provides tremendously helpful advice on safety and protocols for the aviation industry. But, as critics point out, much like the U.N. itself at times, it's hampered by its inability to follow up, to enforce.

WESTERVELT: And we've got more planes in the air, more carriers going up. So this problem could just get worse in the years ahead.

MCGEE: Oh, no question, you know. And unfortunately, it'd be nice to say that as time goes by, we have fewer hotspots. But an argument can be made that the opposite is the case. Again, I was talking to someone in an airline who said for years, flying from the United States to Asia, they would sort of cut across a corner of North Korea. And now in recent times, they've looked at that and said you know what? It's not worth it. And they realize that it may involve 10 or 15 minutes more flying time. But for the airline industry, the biggest cost that they're concerned about is fuel. And so any time you add time, and any time you add fuel, you can pretty much guarantee that the cost of that is going to be passed on to passengers one way or another.

WESTERVELT: William, speaking of risk and safety, has the growth of non-state actors - terrorists and rebel groups - has it really changed the game with the potential for them to get a hold of evermore sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons?

MCGEE: No question. This was a very sobering thing that happened in the Ukraine, not only because of the obvious tragedy and the lives that were lost, but because there was a prohibition on flying below 32,000 feet in certain areas. And it should be noted that that aircraft was at 33,000. And the idea that unsophisticated weaponry, you know, would not be able to reach high altitudes - well, that's changed on how a lot of people think. The fact is it's a bit of a misnomer when you say you're flying over a dangerous area because, you know, if - the fact is you're not flying over a hotspot, you're flying through it or into it.

WESTERVELT: William, what are commercial pilots and aircrews telling you about their concerns about flying over and through these conflict zones?

MCGEE: Well, that's an excellent question because I think it has been overlooked to an extent. You know, when airlines put their assets, their airplanes in these places, they're also putting their personnel. And, you know, I spoke to another crew member this week who was a little concerned about what's going on in Israel and about staying in a hotel with a bomb shelter and having to worry about that.

WESTERVELT: Aviation journalist William McGee is the author of "Attention All Passengers: The Airlines' Dangerous Descent And How To Reclaim Our Skies." William, thanks for talking with us.

MCGEE: Thanks very much, Eric.


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