The Federal Aviation Administration faced criticism Friday for allowing commercial airliners to continue to fly over troubled eastern Ukraine for four days after a military transport plane was shot down there.
The downing of a Russian-made AN-26 cargo plane that was flying at 21,000 feet near Ukraine’s border with Russia on Monday gave notice that combatants below had acquired more potent, sophisticated missiles than the shoulder-fired antiaircraft weapons they had used before.
“Following the shoot-down of the cargo aircraft over Donetsk, the FAA should have immediately issued an [order] to require civilian aircraft to not overfly that area,” said Sen. Mark Kirk (R.-Ill.). “Always with the FAA, you think the bureaucratic slowness and incompetence are the key factors there.”
Eurocontrol, the 40-nation counterpart to the FAA, on July 1 banned flights below 26,000 feet over that region of Ukraine. And Ukrainian officials raised the ceiling to 32,000 feet after Monday’s incident.
Experts said there were two financial reasons that might have kept an average of 300 airliners flying over the troubled region daily.
First, it is the most fuel-
efficient path for many airlines that ply routes between European capitals and Asian cities. And second, more than just contrails in the sky, airliners criss-crossing nations is a multimillion-dollar business for the countries below. Cash-strapped Ukraine might have been receiving millions of dollars in flyover fees, internationally recognized charges that airlines pay most nations, including the United States.
With U.S. rates about to rise in October, it will cost a foreign carrier about $11,900 to fly coast to coast in U.S. airspace without landing. Russia reportedly takes in $300 million to $400 million a year to allow trans-Siberian overflights. Each nation sets its own rates, and the cost of flying over Ukraine could not be determined Friday.
“It really doesn’t matter what the financial condition of the host country is,” Kirk said. “It only matters what the danger is. If they present a clear-and-present danger to civil aircraft, then the U.S. should act in a way that denies them civil aircraft over their territory. If they’re too dangerous to fly, we should tell airlines and require them to adjust routes accordingly.”
The FAA declined to describe the risk assessments done by its Office of Civil Aviation Security Intelligence Policy.
“The FAA was a step behind where they should have been,” said a retired FAA official who once worked in the intelligence office. “The FAA is tied in to the intelligence community, so they would have been aware or should have been aware of what’s going on in the Ukraine. They should have known.”
The retiree, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because his wife works in aviation, said the FAA should have issued a Special Federal Aviation Regulation [SFAR] banning U.S. commercial flights over all of Ukraine.
“The reason they probably didn’t was because it would have forced all U.S. carriers [to go] around Ukraine, and Ukraine would have lost the hard currency for its overflights,” he said. Asked how much, he replied, “It would likely be in the millions of dollars.”
The global aviation agency, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICOA), does not do route-risk evaluations.
“It is always the responsibility of our sovereign member states to advise other states of potential safety hazards to civilian air services in the airspace under their authority,” ICOA spokesman Anthony Philbin said in an e-mail response to an inquiry.
But with the proliferation of code-sharing arrangements, where a U.S. passenger might book a flight on a U.S. carrier only to end up flying on a foreign-flag airline, evaluating risk becomes an international issue.
“If it’s not safe to be there, it’s not good enough just to tell your U.S. domestic audience,” the FAA retiree said, “but the world needs to know this is a problem, which is really part of ICOA’s role.”
He compared the situation in Ukraine with one he dealt with while at the FAA.
“Afghanistan was the same issue,” he said. “We had civil war in Afghanistan in the 1990s, and some of the factions had [shoulder-fired missiles] and some of the factions had [Russian] SA-3s or other surface-to-air missile systems.”
Though transiting Afghanistan was a popular, economic route for U.S. airlines, the FAA prohibited them.
“We became concerned that these missiles could accidentally be used against civil aviation,” he said. “We never thought it would be something that was done deliberately, but rather, ‘Woops, we missed.’ Sound familiar?”