Yesterday America’s airline regulator ordered the country’s airlines to temporarily suspend flights to Israel—but some had already started doing so, perhaps jumpy after last week’s downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 over Ukraine. It shows just how murky the rules are about flying over conflict zones, and raises the question: Where else are civilian air travelers unknowingly traipsing across war zones?
The US Federal Aviation Administration keeps a running list of travel bans and restrictions. In some places like Iraq, Ethiopia and Somalia, American civilian carriers aren’t allowed to fly below certain altitudes in specified areas. But in many conflict zones, the FAA warnings are merely advisories that leave decisions about flight paths to the airlines themselves. Those include:
Afghanistan: The FAA warns that, in a country where airports have been damaged or destroyed by indirect rocket fire from insurgent attacks, airlines should assess the risks of traveling below 24,000 feet (7,300 meters).
Democratic Republic of Congo: Luckily, regional forces fighting in the DRC aren’t known to be capable of attacking airplanes flying above 15,000 feet, the FAA says (pdf). But a passenger jet shot down by a “man-portable” missile in 1998 suggests civilian airplanes, especially those suspected to be carrying government or military materials, are at risk of attack.
Mali: Al Qaeda-linked insurgents lingering in Mali’s north and west put commercial carriers at risk (pdf) of small-arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades, rocket and mortar fire and anti-aircraft fire.
Kenya: Here the FAA warns about “recent, credible information” suggesting a potential terrorist attack soon against US and Western interests in Kenya. The regulator references man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) that were used against an Israeli air carrier leaving Mombasa in 2002.
Syria: The FAA advises that civilian planes have recently “unexpectedly found themselves in close proximity to munitions and missile firings” and that MANPADS and anti-aircraft artillery in the hands of Syria’s opposition pose a threat to low-flying aircrafts.
So is your next flight to, say, Dubai or Doha at risk of crossing paths with a rocket flying over Afghanistan, Libya or Syria? Maybe. While commercial airlines often avoid flying over perceived trouble spots, they’re also under pressure to take the shortest and cheapest paths, which often involves flying over conflict zones. MH17′s flight path, a popular one with major airlines, was considered safe by Eurocontrol, the continent’s international aviation authority; the FAA had merely cautioned against it.
That said, ground conflicts don’t necessarily pose a threat to the skies above. Airlines and regulators have to consider both whether forces in those areas have the sophisticated weaponry needed to down an aircraft, and whether they’d want to use them.