Malaysia Airlines flight 17

Malaysia Airlines plane rerouted from Ukraine in wake of MH17 disaster - to Syria

MH17 disaster has shown it is largely up to carriers whether to route flights over conflict areas like Ukraine and Syria; some now eye change

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 July, 2014, 11:07pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 July, 2014, 1:27am

A no-fly area declared in eastern Ukraine after the downing of flight MH17 is a rare restriction shared with rogue states like North Korea, prompting some airlines to question whether rules for flights over war zones need tightening.

The debate came as Malaysia Airlines flew into a fresh round of criticism for diverting one of its flights away from Ukraine - and rerouting it over war-torn Syria.

While skies over trouble spots such as Libya and Syria are avoided by some airlines on an ad hoc basis, official airspace closures are generally declared by the countries affected and limited to events such as the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks or volcanic eruptions that can create dangerous ash clouds.

Yesterday the US suspended all of its commercial airline flights to Tel Aviv for 24 hours after news reports of rocket debris near Ben Gurion International Airport.

A Delta 747 heading to Tel Aviv from New York was over the Mediterranean when it turned around and flew to Paris instead.

Malaysia Airlines confirmed that on Sunday flight MH4, from London to Kuala Lumpur, was rerouted over Syria following the closure of the flight's usual route over Ukraine. MH17 was apparently brought down by a missile fired from Ukraine's east, causing the loss of almost 300 lives three days earlier.

The crisis-hit airline said the Syrian flight path was among routes approved by the UN's International Civil Aviation Organisation. "As per the notice to airmen issued by the Syrian Civil Aviation Authority, the Syrian airspace was not subject to restrictions. At all times, MH4 was in airspace approved by ICAO," it said.

But the move drew disbelief and scorn on social media. "What is wrong with these guys? Malaysians are now flying over Syria," said one person on Twitter.

Air traffic tracking site Flightradar24 first reported MH4's flight path on its Twitter feed. "As far as we have seen MH4 was the only transcontinental flight going over Syria," it said.

It is not only the public who are dubious about passenger jets flying over war zones.

Lufthansa has joined calls from Dubai-based Emirates to confront a policy permitting high-altitude flights over such areas. Airlines want a conference that includes the ICAO and regulators such as the US Federal Aviation Administration and European Aviation Safety Agency.

"Ukraine is closed now, but apart from that, North Korea is pretty much the only true no-go area for any airline around the world," said Philip Plantholt of Flightradar24. North Korea was singled out because "no one wants to get caught in a missile-testing exercise there", he said.

Flight MH17 was following a regular route when targeted by the missile strike, having followed the same path on five days in the previous week, according to Flightradar24. In the week before the tragedy, 820 flights traversed eastern Ukraine, with two - flown by Singapore Airlines and Air India - within 26km of the Malaysian jet when it was blown up.

MH4's flight path over Syria, according to Flightradar24, is permitted but long avoided by some of the biggest carriers. "You don't find British Airways, United Airlines or Emirates flying over Syria," said Flightradar24's Mikael Robertsson. "They've been avoiding Syria for more than a year."

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse