How to know if your plane will fly over a conflict zone

 

The corporate travel departments and security consultants are trying to find ways to avoid flights that pass through war zones after it was known that some airlines were avoiding crossing through eastern Ukraine while others, including Malaysia Airlines, flew on areas of conflict.

By doing a little research, you can feel confident that your airline is avoiding dangerous skies, or finding out if it does not. Although you will not be able to know exactly the exact route that your flight will take on a given day, you can find out if your airline usually borders certain countries, and the most likely route of your flight.

Every day, hundreds of commercial airlines fly over areas of conflict. Airplanes with passengers pass over Baghdad, for example. There are 41 “kinetic conflicts” – situations in which people are shooting each other – around the world, according to intelligence firm iJet International Inc., which advises corporate travel and airline departments.

“This is not an isolated incident” of flights in conflict zones, said Bruce McIndoe, chief executive of iJet, who has already spoken with clients – travel agents and airlines – about providing more information on potential hazardous areas. Although most of the 41 conflicts are small and geographically limited, and do not include high-range ground-to-air missiles, “”everything has changed in recent days, he said.

There is also the remote possibility of having to make an emergency landing at an airport in the middle of a conflict.

The airlines decide the route of each flight following the weather forecast and the winds. They seek the most economical route, but often change their plans to avoid severe adverse weather or fly a longer distance that has more favorable winds. And others are more cautious about flying over conflict zones than others.

In the days leading up to the attack on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in eastern Ukraine, several airlines, including the Australian-based Qantas Airways and Dubai-based Emirates, flew longer routes around the zone of conflict between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian forces. Other airlines continued to fly routes over territory that had been considered safe by local governments and air traffic control agencies.

“I think it’s a wake-up call,” said Michael McCormick, executive director of the Global Business Travel Association, which represents corporate travel executives. He points out that companies and travelers assume that airlines will fly over safe skies, but now some will begin to assess the risk of flight routes on their own. Travel managers already use security firms to study ground risks, such as riots, strikes, delinquency, and storms.

“The reality is that companies send personnel to every corner of the world and we can no longer assume that airlines will take this part of security into account,” McCormick said.

Smart travelers can follow airline routes with flight tracking services like FlightAware.com and Flightradar24.com. Both collect data from air traffic control agencies and in some cases use automatic positioning transmissions from the same airlines. They are considered accurate and reliable, and are widely used by airlines and corporate jet services.

FlightAware and Flightradar24 allow users to enter a flight number and then view the route of their most recent flight. The two services offer flight histories, so you can review the route for several days. In FlightAware, you can also search flights by departure or destination, which can give you more flights to compare on more or less the same long-distance route.

Flight routes are determined by weather, wind, turbulence, costs, traffic restrictions and congestion, says Fredik Lindahl, chief executive of Stockholm-based Flightradar24. “So a flight between two cities can take different routes every day,” he said.

But airlines do have preferred routes and most days fly almost the same. A multi-day analysis will clearly show if a particular airline is trying to avoid certain countries on a particular route, or if it is actually flying in an area of possible risk.

There are limitations to data crawling services. FlightAware and Flightradar24 have blank spaces in radar-covered areas. That forces their computers to make assumptions on certain flight paths that could make it seem like an airplane is traversing an area when it is actually skirting it. The two services indicate which areas are outside radars.

Airline operations managers are the ones who set general flight policies for certain countries. But the responsibility for each flight lies with the captain, the dispatcher, and a land-based flight planner who directs the cargo to properly distribute it on the plane and conforms to weight limits and calculates how much fuel to carry. Governments and air traffic control agencies are reluctant to close down airspace, in part because airlines pay for their use.

 

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