By Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN
July 21, 2014
(CNN) — Why was Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 flying over war-torn eastern Ukraine?
“We, along with hundreds of other airlines, have flown that route safely for quite some time,” Hugh Dunleavy, commercial director for Malaysia Airlines, told CNN’s Saima Mohsin over the weekend. “Primarily we flew that route because we were advised that this was a safe corridor and there would be no incidents.”
Dunleavy said the plane, which was traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, adjusted its altitude on its way across Europe under the direction of air traffic control.
Now, he said the airline is reassessing the route it uses for that flight. And since Thursday’s crash, commercial airlines that usually cross eastern Ukraine on their flights to Europe, Asia and elsewhere have been detouring away from the volatile region.
But far beyond Ukraine’s borders, analysts say the incident could pave the way for new guidelines for how close planes can fly to conflict zones.
“The rules in aviation are written in blood, or a tombstone mentality if you like,” CNN aviation analyst Miles O’Brien said. “What happens is, people die, and things get safer.”
David Soucie, a CNN safety analyst and former FAA safety inspector, said the situation highlights the need for change in an antiquated system that has what he calls a “flaw in the evaluation of the risk.”
“There had been aircraft shot down just prior to this,” Soucie said. “Someone should have taken action.”
Last week Eurocontrol, the agency responsible for coordinating European airspace, said Ukrainian authorities had closed airspace in the region below 32,000 feet, but it was open at the level Flight 17 was flying (33,000 feet).
“There’s a lot of questions to be asked in a lot of different places,” O’Brien said. “Malaysia, for example, what about the airline policy? What did they inform crews and flight dispatchers about flying through that particular part of the world? And why didn’t government officials close off that airspace completely? 32,000 feet, that’s a completely arbitrary number.”
The president of Dubai’s Emirates airline is calling for an international meeting of carriers to come up with a response to the downing of the plane, Reuters reported on Sunday.
The U.N.’s International Civil Aviation Organization can’t close airspace, Emirates President Tim Clark told Reuters, “but they can issue advisories and they may be a little more active.”
And national regulators “may start getting involved a little more than they have,” Clark said, according to Reuters. “They have perhaps left airlines to their own devices.”
The airline chief’s comments are a good sign that changes soon could be in the works, O’Brien said.
Les Abend, a CNN aviation analyst and commercial pilot, said before last week’s crash, pilots weren’t worried about missiles hitting planes they were flying.
“None of us, I think, would have conceived that kind of devastation from a surface-to-air missile,” he said. “Evading missiles (is) not part of our training. That’s just something that’s not in our vocabulary at this point and time.”
But now, he said, guidelines for pilots will likely change.
“Now we’ve got a new threat that we’ve got to deal with,” he said. “Now we’ve lost lives.”