The Malaysia Airlines flight shot down Thursday in eastern Ukraine, likely by a BUK missile launcher operated by pro-Russian separatist rebels, raises an obvious question among American travelers: How often do passenger airplanes fly over conflict areas where there are anti-aircraft systems?
The answer is frightening.
To make civilian air travel safe and avoid yesterday’s catastrophe in Ukraine, the Federal Aviation Administration maintains a list of Notices to Airman (NOTAMs) that place restrictions on commercial flights operated by U.S. carriers in potentially hazardous airspace. Airspace may be considered hazardous if it is over an active volcano, near a weapons testing site, or over an active conflict zone.
But until Thursday night, after the 298 people aboard MH17 were killed, there was not a NOTAM in effect for eastern Ukraine.
Jeffrey Price, an aviation security analyst, said that the incident is nearly without precedent: “People just weren’t expecting a military-grade radar from a surface-to-air missile to be launched at a commercial flight.”
And yet, passenger jets regularly fly over areas with active surface-to-air missiles. While the FAA sets the rules for U.S. jetliners, the United Nations-affiliated International Civil Aviation Organization is responsible for regulating international airspace.
“At all times, MH17 was in airspace approved by the ICAO,” Malaysia Airlines said in a statement, adding, “The route over Ukrainian airspace where the incident occurred is commonly used for Europe to Asia flights. A flight from a different carrier was on the same route at the time of the MH17 incident, as were a number of other flights from other carriers in the days and weeks before.”
In April, the FAA issued a NOTAM restricting American carriers from traveling at any altitude over the Simferopol region of Crimea, about 350 miles from eastern Ukraine. Thursday night, in response to the downed Malaysia Airlines flight, they expanded the warning to include the Dnepropetrovsk flight region covering the contested area. In addition to new FAA restrictions, both U.S.-based and international airlines have voluntarily rerouted many their flights around eastern Ukraine and Crimea; some flight activity continues to trickle across western parts of the country.
Several of the restrictions in the map above only apply to flights below a certain altitude—usually under 24,000 feet. This varies according to the situation on the ground. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, where rebels possess less advanced rocket technology, the minimum operating altitude is 15,000 feet, whereas planes flying over ISIS-controlled regions of Iraq must remain above 20,000 feet.
But less than two weeks ago, the Ukrainian government declared it unsafe to fly over eastern Ukraine at an altitude below 32,000 feet, because of the presence of anti-aircraft weapons. MH17 was at a cruising altitude of 33,000 feet when it was shot down.
Jacques Astre, a pilot and FAA inspector for more than 30 years, flew over the same airspace on Sunday on a business trip to New Delhi. “To be honest with you, I was feeling insecure because I knew what was going on down there," Astre said in a phone call from the Indian capital. "There was no guarantee that such weaponry wouldn’t go above 32,000 feet. There’s no shield that would protect you at 32,000 feet.”
While the FAA now prohibits flights at any altitude over eastern Ukraine, yesterday’s crash calls into question the utility of FAA warnings in other conflict zones where planes are restricted from flying at cruising altitudes below 24,000 feet.
According to Dmitry Gorenburg, a Russian military analyst at CNA Corporation, BUK systems "are in just about every country that bought anti-aircraft weapons from Russia.” He added that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia sold these weapons systems “to anybody who wanted them,” with the exception of countries under sanctions from the international community.
The missiles on the BUKs have a range of up 82,000 feet, well within reach of commercial jets flying within FAA regulations.
Former aircraft engineer Peter Marosszeky told the New York Times that “airlines have not typically worried until now about surface-to-air missiles reaching planes at cruising altitude, because only a very large missile with a lot fuel could ascend such a distance.” While these weapons systems are known to have proliferated among state actors, it is extremely rare for a rebel group to acquire the technology and capability to shoot down a plane at cruising altitude.
The fact that it is so rare for non-state actors to possess this kind of weaponry explains why the FAA's flight-restriction altitudes over conflict zones are often set below both cruising altitude (32,000-40,000 feet) and the range reached by anti-aircraft missiles (up to 82,000 feet). When asked how they determine a safe altitude, the FAA declined to comment.
Keith Mackey, a former pilot and current aviation safety consultant, says the FAA could do more. “They don’t give you enough information so that you could actually do anything positive to react to threats. Most of the time [the NOTAMs] are a cover-your-butts deal, so that they can say they warned you.”
Mackey said that like all bureaucracies, the FAA is not known for its efficiency. For example, they have yet to lift restrictions over northern Ethiopia, even though the civil war there ended in 1991. The fact that restrictions were not imposed over eastern Ukraine until after the Malaysia Airlines disaster may be indicative of a larger agency-wide problem.
“There’s gonna be an awakening for sure,” noted Astre. “I think you’re gonna see airlines be more wary and civil aviation authorities reacting more immediately then they were before.”