Flights taken over war zones 'because it's cheaper'

By Tom Whitehead, Martin Evans, Nick Collins

Passengers looking at Malaysia Airlines planes on the tarmac at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Photo / File/AFP
Passengers looking at Malaysia Airlines planes on the tarmac at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Photo / File/AFP

Airlines across the world have imposed a no-fly zone over Ukraine as questions grow over why passenger jets were flying over the war zone three months after pilots were warned to avoid it.

In the east of the country, Eurocontrol, which coordinates European air traffic control, said Ukrainian authorities had now closed all routes.

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The wreckage of the Malaysia Airlines jet. Photo / AFP

Eurocontrol said the closure of airspace would affect 300 flights per day on the busy route, with planes expected to be diverted. Delays are expected as a result. Aviation safety authorities in America and Europe warned pilots in April about potential risks flying in or near Ukraine airspace.

The US Federal Aviation Administration issued a "special notice" regarding Ukrainian airspace advising airlines to "exercise extreme caution due to the continuing potential for instability" and Eurocontrol warned pilots and airlines to avoid Ukranian airspace due to serious risks. Aviation experts last night said operators continued to fly across the zone because it was the quickest and cheapest route for some flights.

A fireball seen shortly after the crash. AP/Amateur Video accessed by APTV

Firefighters amongst the wreckage of the Malaysia Airlines jet. Photo / AFP

Relatives of passengers from Amsterdam outside the family holding area at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Photo / AFP

'Attacks on aircraft in the area have been rife'

Norman Shanks, a former head of group security at airports group BAA, said: "Malaysia Airlines, like a number of other carriers, has been continuing to use it because it is a shorter route, which means less fuel and therefore less money. Attacks on aircraft in the area have been rife. In the past week alone two Ukrainian military aircraft were shot down and a third was damaged by a missile.

Immediately after the crash yesterday, four more airliners followed the same path and did not re-route, they were flights for Singapore Airlines, Emirates, Kazakhstan Airlines and Etihad.

Last night a Department for Transport spokesman confirmed that flights, including those already airborne, were being routed around the region.

Virgin Atlantic said it had diverted a small number of flights, believed to include routes from Heathrow to Dubai and one on the Mumbai to Heathrow route. Turkish Airlines said all of its flights would now avoid Ukrainian airspace. British Airways said only one flight a day used that airspace, the Heathrow to Kiev service. A spokesman said: "The safety and security of our customers is always our top priority.

"We are keeping those services under review, but Kiev is several hundred kilometres from the incident site."

Other operators that were diverting flights over Ukraine last night were Italy's Alitalia, Lufthansa, Air France and the Russian carriers Aeroflot, and Transaero.

Sufficient altitude not to be at risk of attack?

It is understood airliners continued to cross volatile regions because operators believed they were at a sufficient altitude not to be at risk of attack.

It was for this reason that commercial airliners continued to fly over Iraq and Afghanistan during prior conflicts, although it has been reported that the US Federal Aviation Administration has recently told carriers to avoid the Crimea.

The Malaysian Airlines flight was reportedly travelling at an altitude of about 33,000ft - an altitude considered by those within the industry to be completely safe.

Luggage is pictured on the site of the crash. Photo / AFP

Military jets typically fly at much lower altitudes, meaning it would be hard to misinterpret an airliner at such height as a threat, and many ground-based weapons would not reach such an altitude.

Ukrainian military transport plane hit

On Monday a Ukrainian military transport plane carrying eight people was hit by a missile fired from Russian territory killing two of those on board. On Wednesday a Ukrainian Air Force Su-25 fighter was also hit by a missile, forcing the pilot to eject.

Earlier that day another Su-25 was hit by a rebel missile but the pilot landed the plane successfully with relatively slight damage.

An industry source said: "The belief was that a plane could not be shot down at that altitude, which is why aircraft continue to fly over zones that have wars going on."

David Kaminski-Morrow, the air transport editor of Flightglobal magazine, added: "Any decision about the opening or closing of Ukrainian airspace will be a matter for the Ukrainians. It could well be that all of that airspace will now be closed."

Next story - MH17 intercepted call: 'We just shot down plane'

- Daily Telegraph UK

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