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Why were commercial airlines still traveling over eastern Ukraine?

Yesterday’s crash of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in eastern Ukraine has raised suspicions that the airplane was felled by an anti-aircraft missile, possibly fired by pro-Russian separatist fighters in the conflict-torn region - and raising a safety question: Why were commercial airlines still allowed to fly over such apparently dangerous territory? (As of now, all civilian flights over the area—a highly trafficked route between Southeast Asia and Europe—have been rerouted.)

To get a better understanding of how commercial airline routes are determined, and what it means to close airspace as important as the routes over Ukraine, Ideas spoke by phone with John Hansman, professor of aeronautics at MIT and director of MIT’s International Center for Air Transportation. It turns out commercial flights travel over conflict zones surprisingly frequently; here he describes the logistics of closing airspace, and why precautionary steps might not have been taken earlier.


IDEAS: After this crash, it seems shocking to read that so much air traffic is flying over such dangerous territory. Is this unusual?

HANSMAN: It’s not uncommon to fly over conflict areas. We have airplanes today that are flying over Afghanistan all the time en route to India. It’s not unusual to do that.

IDEAS: What does it actually take to close airspace?

HANSMAN: Airspace is closed by the authority that controls and owns that airspace, typically the country that the airspace is in....In regions of conflict, it varies on the situation. It typically would be closed by the military authority that was operating in that area and they would communicate that to the air traffic control.

IDEAS: Clearly, now, flights shouldn’t have been traveling over that area. What went wrong here in terms of air traffic control?

HANSMAN: I’m not sure that everybody appreciated how bad the situation was there, that the rebels apparently were shooting at anything that moved. Normally the military rules of engagement would be to check to see if there are commercial airplanes in the area, but I don’t think the rebels are that disciplined. In retrospect they should have closed it, but in prospect maybe it wasn’t that clear.


IDEAS: And is there any one agency or government that’s at fault here?

HANSMAN: I don’t think there’s a big blame game in closing the airspace. I think the bigger issue is why would anybody fire a missile at a civil airplane. My guess is it wasn’t intentional—they just didn’t know what they were doing.

IDEAS: The air routes over Ukraine are heavily traveled and lots of planes are now being rerouted. Is it easy enough to absorb these planes into new routes?

HANSMAN: The area they’d have to go around is not huge. It’s like the size of New England. If you know about it ahead of time, it’s not a big deal to do an end-around.

Kevin Hartnett, a writer in South Carolina, writes the Brainiac blog for the Boston Globe. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.