In the world’s interconnected airspace, flights over conflict zones are common


NATS

Global airspace, like the global economy, is now unbelievably, irreversibly interconnected, a reality driven home by the news Thursday that a commercial Malaysia Airlines flight headed from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was downed in Ukraine with 298 people on board.

Conflicts that seem remote in the daily news are much less so on a map of global flight paths. Parts of the world that feel disconnected from us — by politics, by war, by sheer distance — are much harder to isolate from the intricate web of the world's logistics.

Since April, the Federal Aviation Administration had banned U.S. carriers from flying over Crimea and the Black Sea (due to potential miscommunication between Ukrainian and Russian air traffic officials and "related potential misidentification of civil aircraft"). But that no-fly zone did not include the mainland part of Ukraine where the Malaysian flight appeared to go down — and where the airline had flown regularly, once a day, in recent weeks.

"It’s an established route, there’s no war declared. It’s not a no-fly zone," said Robert Benzon, a retired lead investigator at the National Transportation Safety Board. "There are commercial planes flying in and out of Iraq all the time."

Had the Malaysian flight continued, it would have traveled over Iran and Afghanistan, based on its path on previous days.

The news of the Malaysia Airlines flight is a reminder that events on the ground in one part of the world are intimately connected to seemingly unrelated places and people, including those who may be passing overhead. On a given day from July of last year, this is what the matrix of flight paths over and through Europe looks like, in an animation from NATS, a provider of air traffic control services based in Britain:

Ashley Halsey III contributed to this report.

Emily Badger is a reporter for Wonkblog covering urban policy. She was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities.
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