If safety, not fuel savings, are indeed the top priority, commercial jets should avoid areas of conflict

A fate as horrific as that of the 298 people on board Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 invites a thorough rethinking of a number of cherished notions. It has always been assumed that airliners flew too high to be, in the words of American Vice-President Joe Biden, "blown out of the sky".

Consequently, the industry has been apt to disregard all but the no-fly zones imposed during substantial conflicts between combatants with sophisticated weaponry. Warnings and recommendations have been ignored in the interests of saving fuel by using the most direct routes to destinations. In the case of the Malaysian flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, this had disastrous repercussions.

In all likelihood, the Boeing 777 was shot down by mistake by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. They had recently captured Buk surface-to-air missiles and launchers from Ukrainian forces, providing them with the technology to down an aircraft at MH17's 10,000m.

In capable hands, this weaponry can distinguish between civilian and enemy aircraft. The difference between a jet airliner and an Antonov-26, the twin-engined turboprop military transport plane that the separatists thought they had shot down, should have been obvious.


In this instance, however, the equipment seems to have got into the hands of men who were untrained in its use and prepared to use it irresponsibly. Most of the blame for this tragedy lies with them, but Malaysia Airlines and the airline industry also have questions to answer. In particular, there is the issue of the warnings to airlines to avoid airspace over Ukraine. A special notice from the United States Federal Aviation Administration in April recommended exercising "extreme caution due to the continuing potential for instability". Eurocontrol, which co-ordinates European air traffic control, also warned airlines to avoid Ukraine airspace because of serious risks. Malaysia Airlines was far from alone in carrying on regardless.

An obvious response would be for the International Air Transport Association (Iata) to insist its member airlines avoid flying over areas of conflict. They would no longer, for example, cross Iraq and Afghanistan. This would acknowledge the increasing risk of leading-edge weapons falling into unscrupulous hands. But given the number of wars of varying intensity around the globe, it would also add thousands of kilometres to many flights. Yet when a precise warning has been given, as in this case, there seems no reason why Iata members should not be bound to heed it. Safety is, after all, said to be the industry's top priority. Not savings on fuel.

It may be tempting to assume that airlines will now suffer a decline in passengers, with many people viewing this form of travel as too dangerous. Malaysia Airlines will certainly suffer. But it should be remembered that the downing of airliners as a result of error or misadventure is not especially unusual. This tragedy will be placed alongside Iran Air Flight 655, which was mistakenly shot down over the Persian Gulf in 1988 by the the American warship Vincennes, and Korean Airlines Flight 007, which was downed by a Soviet fighter five years earlier after it strayed into restricted airspace.

There have, however, been at least six other less-publicised instances of airliners being shot down in the past 40 years. All told, well over 1,000 people have lost their lives in such episodes. It is time for airlines to be more cautious about where they fly.

Read the full coverage on the MH17 tragedy here.