How can you tell if your airline is safe?

03:30, Aug 04 2014

With a series of inquiries underway to apportion blame for the MH17 disaster and recommend changes to the way flight paths are assessed, it has become clear that airline passengers are on their own in assessing whether the airline they intend to fly with is safe.

And it's not just time and money-saving flight paths over the Ukraine war zone that are under scrutiny.

Qantas announced on Saturday it was no longer flying over Iraq, following a warning by the US Federal Aviation Administration about the safety of its airspace.

That was nearly a week after Qantas partner Emirates announced it would be avoid Iraqi airspace, even though websites like were still showing Emirates services over Iraq as late as yesterday.

"Qantas has closely monitored the issue of flight paths over conflict zones, particularly in light of the MH17 tragedy, with safety our first priority," the airline said on Saturday.

"We have no new information that alters our safety assessment of flying over Iraq, especially given the altitudes we maintain over this region.

"However, given the various restrictions imposed by different governments in the past 24 hours, including by the United States' FAA, Qantas temporarily rerouted its flights within the Middle East to avoid Iraqi airspace. This change will apply until further information becomes available."

Nevertheless, Qantas does not deem advice about flight paths in war zones worthy of inclusion in its travel updates for flyers nervous about heading to Europe after the Ukraine disaster.

The airline merely reassures passengers that it no longer flies over the Ukraine.

A number of other prestigious world airlines, including Singapore Airlines and Lufthansa, also stopped flying over Ukraine only after the Malaysian Boeing 777 was shot down on July 17.

In fact, a Singapore Airlines Airbus A380 superjumbo seating up to 471 people, travelling between Paris and Singapore, and another SQ Boeing 777-200ER were in the air over Ukraine when the Malaysian 777 was shot down.

And Malaysia complained bitterly that it was the international agencies Eurocontrol (which controls air traffic into and out of the EU) and the UN Internatikonal Civil Aviation Organisation that were at fault.

The flight path taken by MH17 was approved by the International Civil Aviation Organisation, and by the countries whose airspace the route passed through," Malaysia's transport minister Liow Tiong Lai said in a statement in the days after the disaster.


And the International Air Transportation Association has also stated that the airspace the aircraft was traversing was unrestricted.

15 out of 16 airlines in the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines fly this route over Ukraine. European airlines also use the same route, and traverse the same airspace. In the hours before the incident, a number of other passenger aircraft from different carriers used the same route.

There were no last minute instructions given to the pilots of MH17 to change the route of the flight.

There has been fierce criticism of the fact that eastern Ukraine's airspace could be open when it was known there were militia operating in the area with access to Russian-built missiles capable of shooting down airlines at twice the altitude of MH17.

There is nothing technologically challenging about a surface to air (SAM) missile locking onto and destroying an airliner at 33,000 feet," former Sydney Morning Herald aviation editor Ben Sandilands wrote. "That's what they are designed to do, and have been for some time, including taking down supersonic targets and at altitudes higher than 60,000 feet.

Sandilands was especially savage on the fact that eastern Ukraine airspace had been approved for transit by airliners above 32,000 feet when an engine shutdown would quickly cause it to lose altitude and put it in harm's way.

The fact that Ukraine has been earning as much as US$200 (NZ$235) million a year by some estimates from overflights between Asia and Europe would appear to have been a key reason why aviation authorities had not acted earlier in directing airlines away from the threat.

Meanwhile, the world aviation system is struggling to deal with the fact that it is possible to "disappear" a 300-seat airliner without a trace.

There are still only theories about what happened to MH370, a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 that vanished without a trace on a flight between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing nearly five months ago on March 8.

Has either MH370 or MH17 put you off flying? Do you have a preferred carrier that you trust to get you to your destination safely?

Sydney Morning Herald