The Dangers of Flying Over War Zones

The downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 over the troubled region of eastern Ukraine raises many critical questions, especially for the loved ones of the 290 civilians on board that commercial flight. But for other travelers who must or want to travel internationally in the future, how can we trust that we are truly safe in aircraft that necessarily transit hostile and roughshod regions of the world at 37,000 feet?

One thing that should make travelers feel secure is that airlines and their passengers do it all the time without incident. I recall a few years ago taking a flight from Tokyo to Abu Dhabi and noticing that our flight path included the air space over the East China Sea, where China is now threatening a military response if aircraft don’t ask it’s permission before traversing these international waters, Pakistan and Afghanistan, in which al Qaeda and Taliban rebels have been waging fierce wars on the ground and even in the air for a decade, and Iran, which doesn’t exactly have the most predictable of regimes and has threatened to wipe other countries off be face of the earth.

But in truth, airliners packed with hundreds of civilians transit over and near territories like these hundreds of times per day. And there are certainly plenty of other hotspots and danger zones across the globe through which flights have passed daily for years without incident.

Think about the decades-long civil wars in the Congo and Sudan, the occasional unannounced missiles fired by North Korea far out into international waters and even over other countries, and the constant barrage of uncontrolled rockets flying out of the Gaza Strip.

Or, don’t think about them, since international travelers generally don’t need to when they travel. Some of these conflicts have been raging for decades, yet civilian air traffic in these regions has been relatively smooth and uninterrupted. This is due to several known factors.

First, weapons that can hit in-flight commercial aircraft are, for the most part, securely in the hands of governments, even the worst of which try pretty hard to keep a tight grip on them and wouldn’t generally use those weapons themselves to target foreign civilian aircraft. Despite the old Arab proverb, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” which often controls government-rebel relations across many borders, there’s always the very real risk that my enemy’s enemy today may be my own enemy tomorrow.

Second, those charged with manning international communications and cross-border operations, even between states and entities that are hostile to one another, are more often than not still professionals who are focused on their jobs and basic missions of facilitating safe, tracked transportation.

Not long after the United States scaled up its presence in the Persian Gulf again for Operation Iraqi Freedom, I asked a Naval officer friend of mine who had just returned from a deployment there what it was like dealing with the Iranian navy as we traversed straits and waters that they partially controlled. I was shocked when he told me that the only memory he had of the Iranians was that they were exceedingly polite and professional over the air waves, even toward US warships, and often wished them a pleasant day at the end of their radio exchanges.

Third, commercial airline companies have just as much incentive to foresee and avoid truly dangerous situations as anyone. The last thing any of them needs is an avoidable disaster that not only costs the lives of it’s passengers and crew, but also costs the airline hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars in lost equipment, legal settlements, and decreased business.

Despite all of these considerations, there remains the fact that a sophisticated anti-aircraft rocket still appears to have taken down Malaysia Airlines flight 17 as it cruised through normally safe altitudes over a recently volatile but low-intensity conflict area. Unfortunately, I would suggest that the reason might lie in a previously unthinkable violation of the first two sets of norms and assumptions.

If the Russian government has been arming pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine with some of its sophisticated, government-controlled weaponry because the Kremlin believes that the separatists want to join Russia and not later fight with it, and if those separatists were careless and ill-trained without the Russian military covering for them in the conduct of normal international communications and monitoring, then a perfect storm may have suddenly brewed that week over eastern Ukraine.

Unfortunately for Malaysia Airlines flight 17 and its 290 innocent passengers, it happened to just be in the wrong place at the wrong time and unknowingly flew right into the eye of the storm.