Why Did Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 Fly Over a War Zone?

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July 17, 2014

The crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 has left many across the world wondering whether the airliner was negligent when it flew over a well-known conflict area in eastern Ukraine. MH17 was carrying nearly 300 occupants when it was shot down Thursday afternoon by a surface-to-air missile, presumably fired by pro-Russian separatists who have been fighting with Ukrainian troops in the Donetsk Region.

The route MH17 followed was considered the most direct and economical in terms of mileage and fuel consumption, according to several aviation experts. "MAS had used this route for years and it had always been safe," said Malaysian Transport Minister, Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai, when addressing the media on Friday. "Fifteen out of 16 Asian-Pacific airlines and even some airlines from Europe fly that route."

Malaysia Airlines But other airlines have specifically avoided the area.

  • Australian-based Qantas Airlines ceased flying over the eastern region of Ukraine months ago.
  • Korean Air began to reroute both cargo and passenger flights back in March.
  • The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) also issued a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) in April prohibiting U.S. airlines from using airspace over the Crimean peninsula, though this directive didn't cover the area where Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down. The U.S. filed the directive because of "unilateral and illegal" actions by Russia to take control of Crimean airspace.
  • Aviation authorities from other nations have issued similar directives.

Since June, at least four Ukrainian military planes have been shot down in the MH17 crash area. According to Vox, two of the shoot downs were "almost certainly" caused by rebels, perhaps demonstrating their ability to target planes. It is worth noting that the other two known shoot downs of Ukrainian military planes occurred at high altitudes, though it's not immediately clear who shot down the high altitude planes. Former CIA director, James Woolsey, told CNN that rebels have "shot down about 12 planes in the course of the last couple of months."

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