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Friday, July 25, 2014

Find Out If Your Airline Is Flying Over A War Zone or Dangerous Route

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Find Out If Your Airline Is Flying Over A War Zone or Dangerous Route

World Travelers Can Research Flight Paths to See if Airlines Avoid Conflict Areas.

With some research, airline travelers can learn if they can avoid flights that pass over war zones. 

Travelers, corporate travel departments and security consultants are trying to figure out ways to avoid flights that pass over war zones after the revelation that some airlines were avoiding eastern Ukraine while others, including Malaysia Airlines, were flying over areas of conflict.

With a little research, you can build confidence that your airline is avoiding trouble spots—or discover if it isn't. While you won't know for sure the exact path your flight will take on a given day, you can figure out whether your airline routinely skirts certain countries, and the most likely route you'll fly.

Every day hundreds of passenger airliners fly over trouble spots. Passenger jets regularly pass over Baghdad, for example. There are 41 "kinetic conflicts"—situations where people are shooting at each other—around the world, according to security intelligence firm iJet International Inc., which advises corporate travel departments and airlines.

"This is not an isolated incident" of flying over conflict areas, said iJet chief executive Bruce McIndoe, who has already had conversations with clients—traveler managers and airlines—about supplying more information about potential trouble areas. Even though most of the 41 are small, localized conflicts without high-powered surface-to-air missiles involved, "it's a whole new world as of a couple of days ago," he said.

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

Airlines make decisions for every flight about the planned route, usually based mostly on weather forecasts and winds. Airlines want the most economical route, but often fly out of the way of severe weather or take a longer route with more favorable winds. And some are more cautious about flying over conflicts than others.

In the days leading up to the July 17 downing of Malaysia Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine, several airlines, including Australia's Qantas Airways  and Dubai-based Emirates, regularly flew longer routes around the area of fighting between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces. Other carriers continued to fly routes over the territory that had been deemed safe by local governments and air-traffic control agencies.

"I think this is a wake-up call," said Michael McCormick, executive director of the Global Business Travel Association, which represents corporate travel executives. He says companies and individual travelers assumed airlines could be trusted to fly in safe skies, but now some will start evaluating flight-path risk on their own. Travel managers already use security firms to evaluate risks on the ground, such as riots, strikes, crime and storms.

"The reality is companies send travelers to every corner of the world and we can't make that assumption anymore that airlines are looking after this part of security," Mr. McCormick said.

Savvy travelers can check up on airlines with flight-tracking services like FlightAware.com and Flightradar24.com. Both collect data from air-traffic control agencies and in some cases use automatic position broadcasts from airplanes themselves. They are considered accurate and reliable, with extensive use by airlines and corporate jet services.

FlightAware and Flightradar24 let users enter an airline flight number and then see the path of the latest trip. Both have flight histories available, so you can check the path over several days. On FlightAware, you can also search for flights by departure and destination, which can give you more flights to compare on roughly the same long-distance path.

Flight paths are largely determined by weather, winds, turbulence, costs, traffic restrictions and congestion, notes Fredrik Lindahl, CEO of Stockholm-based Flightradar24. "So a flight between two cities can take a different route every day," he said.

But airlines do have preferred routes and most days fly much the same route. Checking multiple days will clearly show whether a particular airline is avoiding certain countries on a particular route, or whether it is indeed flying over potential trouble.

There are limitations in the flight-tracking data. FlightAware and Flightradar24 have gaps in radar coverage areas. That forces their computers to make assumptions about flight paths that can make a flight appear to pass over an area—North Korea, for example—when it actually skirted around it. United Flight 976 from Washington's Dulles International Airport to Dubai looks like it passes over northern Syria on FlightAware, but each day it actually skirts the Syrian border to the north and travels down the Iraq-Iran border to the Persian Gulf. Flightradar24 shows the path avoiding Syria.

FlightAware this week began drawing gap areas with a white line instead of its regular green flight-path line; Flightradar24 shows gaps with a dotted line.

"People are surprised at how difficult flight-tracking is in remote areas," said Daniel Baker, CEO of Houston-based FlightAware. The disappearance of Malaysian Flight 370 in March demonstrated those limitations, he noted.

Airline operations managers set broad policy about flying over certain countries. But the responsibility for each flight falls to the captain, who is ultimately in charge, and the dispatcher, a flight planner on the ground who helps direct cargo loading to keep the plane properly balanced and within weight limits and calculates how much fuel to load.

Governments and air-traffic control agencies are reluctant to shut down airspace, in part because airlines pay fees for airspace use. A week before MH17 crashed, a military transport plane was shot down in eastern Ukraine by a sophisticated surface-to-air missile at relatively high altitude above 20,000 feet. To some, that was a clear indication that the firepower being used in the conflict had escalated, but airspace was closed to commercial flights only below 32,000 feet. MH17 was flying at 33,000 feet when attacked.

The International Air Transport Association, which represents airlines world-wide, has called for an investigation into why better information about the threat to airliners wasn't distributed before the July 17 tragedy.

"No effort should be spared in ensuring that this outrage is not repeated," said IATA chief executive Tony Tyler. "Governments will need to take the lead in reviewing how airspace risk assessments are made."

Depending on the intensity of the fighting, airline regulators may deem some conflict zones safe to fly over. But certain countries are off limits for U.S. carriers — if not for others.

Airlines are already under more pressure to disclose whether they are flying over war zones. FlightAware's Mr. Baker said his airline customers began calling after the MH17 tragedy asking for data and graphics on flight paths of other airlines to compare to their own. Private jet customers, too, "are asking questions and watching the maps much more closely," he said.

On Tuesday, several U.S. airlines decided to cancel flights to Israel after a rocket fell near the Tel Aviv airport. A Delta Air Lines turned around in-flight and went to Paris instead. Soon after, the Federal Aviation Administration ordered U.S. airlines to suspend Tel Aviv flights temporarily.

Businesses that specialize in travel security are getting greater attention. GHA LLC builds travel assessments that provide a tailored list of landmarks like hospitals or embassies in relation to your hotel. The company also develops a list of potential threats to your trip that can range from bad water to terrorism. Founder Brian Schwatken said traffic to the company's website is up 300% since Flight 17 crashed.

"You don't want your business to revolve around tragedy, but we think it's necessary and we hope we can help people," said Mr. Schwatken, a former Marine Corps intelligence specialist.

Mr. McIndoe of iJet calls it an "overreaction" for individuals and corporations to start evaluating flight-path security risks, and says that airlines will rebuild confidence. Large carriers have to evaluate what their code-sharing partners are doing, he noted, because they are selling tickets on flights operated by other airlines that may not make the same decisions. And large global airlines have more resources to evaluate risks than smaller airlines, he suggests.

"A major player will have more depth and more operating experience than smaller guys," he said.

Monty Henry, Owner

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