Commercial airlines are reconsidering flying over “hot” conflict zones after the recent Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 crash over eastern Ukraine. How long will this change last?
EU and US sanctions and Russian counter-sanctions
Almost two weeks after the downing of flight MH17, a shock wave of after-effects has hit commercial airlines across Europe and Asia. The EU and the US imposed individual and sector-wide sanctions against the Russian energy, arms and financial industries. The sanctions are a result of Russia’s perceived intransigence in stopping the flow of matériel across the border to Ukraine and assign blame to Russia’s president Vladimir Putin for his inability to effectively control the rebels that have de facto control over the crash site. In response, the Russian Federation imposed import bans on agricultural and food products from the EU, the US, Norway, Canada and Australia.
The sanctions have affected not only the military and other export-oriented sectors in Europe, but also the commercial airline industry, which may now face potential flight bans over Russian airspace. Most importantly, the spiral of continuing sanctions into a mutual trade war threatens to hurt economic interests on both sides of the conflict, while strengthening the economic clout of Asian and (presumably) Russian domestic producers. Sanctions have had numerous effects on commercial air travel in the past, as illustrated by several cases.
The Malaysia Airlines flight crash forced many commercial airlines, which regularly fly over conflict zones, to pay extra attention to the tragic and potentially industry-wide effects of incidents like the downing of flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine. The effects on Malaysia Airlines are also incidentally connected to the disappearance of another Boeing 777 operated by Malaysia Airlines (MH370) over the Indian Ocean. They stand apart from the more manageable industry effects of previous crashes like Air France flight 447, or Air Algérie flight 5017. The apocalyptic industry-wide effects of crashes like the Air France-operated Concorde crash in 2000 coexist uneasily with cases like these.
Disease and conflict zones: airlines’ risk assessments
How will commercial airlines negotiate very different views on the need to avoid these conflict zones in the future?
Cases like Mali, Iraq and Libya can be instructive. Because commercial airlines fly over conflict zones all the time, for reasons of fuel efficiency and reducing the costs of overflight taxes when flying over numerous territories, the need to avoid northern Iraq in recent weeks has been a divisive issue. British Airways and Etihad Airways have announced they will continue to use routes over Iraqi airspace, citing recommendations by US regulatory body, the FAA, while airlines like Lufthansa and Air France are temporarily avoiding them.
In a recent blog post, researcher Simon Bennett suggested the MH17 flight crash, while a horrific and unforeseen disaster, was also a symptom of airlines’ weighing the costs of flying around conflict zones as too high to be profitable. Not only do airlines incur competition losses when they avoid conflict zones, industry leaders also understand that taking certain risks with customers’ safety and the safety of its personnel is, unfortunately, necessary in a fiercely competitive industry. Commercial airlines face a whole menu of risks, which are in principle translated into costs for airlines, not only the the risks associated with flying over conflict zones, but also the risk of outright overflight bans, epidemics, inclement weather and other types of sanctions.
Imperfect safety conditions will continue to be a central feature of the airline industry, largely because there is no overarching body deciding where planes can safely fly. For this reason, airlines may ultimately decide against extending short-term concessions to consumers worried about flying over conflict zones, at least at the industry level.