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MH17 not unique; commercial aircraft often fly over conflict zones

The usual Malaysian Airlines route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur
The usual Malaysian Airlines route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur

The head of the International Air Travel Association vented his frustration Friday over the fact that MH17 was shot down despite flying what had seemed to be a safe route.

"Airlines depend on governments and air traffic control authorities to advise which air space is available for flight, and they plan within those limits," said Tony Tyler, CEO of the trade association. "It is very similar to driving a car. If the road is open, you assume that it is safe. If it's closed you find an alternate route."

He did not assign blame to any particular authority or actor, but with the crash of MH17, US and foreign aviation authorities have snapped into action. They have closed the "roads" over eastern Ukraine, telling pilots not to fly there, but it's too late for nearly 300 people. The route over eastern Ukraine was popular, as several outlets have noted, and airlines often fly over conflict zones. The MH17 incident highlights the complicated business of what are and are not safe flight paths for a civilian airliner.

Europe's international aviation organization Eurocontrol had deemed MH17's flight path safe, as Aviation Week reports. Though it is true that the pilot's flight path had been cleared for 35,000 feet and the plane had traveled at 33,000, it was still in what was considered a safe range, according to a NOTAM, short for "notice to airmen," sent before the plane went down.

Aviation authorities issue NOTAMs for all sorts of reasons, from an air show to an international conflict, and thousands are in effect at any given time. Aviation Week points to a Russian NOTAM issued shortly before the crash that had restricted many flight paths over Ukraine on any plane flying below 32,000 feet, due to fighting on the ground in that country. But the prescribed altitude was clearly was not out of range of a surface-to-air missile, the weapon that brought MH17 down.

So is it just a question of knowing who has which weapons in any given conflict? It's much more complicated than that, says one expert.

"It's not just about the weaponry; it's about the disposition of the people" that have that weaponry, says Kees Rietsema, a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeuronautical University.

He points to the incident in which the US shot down an Iranian airliner as an example.

"Passenger airlines didn't quit flying the middle east when the US shot down that Iranian airplane years ago. They decided it was a one-off type of thing, and so they continued," he says. "But in this particular case, I think the people that are making those decision are far less certain that that was a mistake. Nobody really knows."

That makes it hard to draw lessons from the MH17 crash. But it doesn't mean planes will stop flying over conflict. Airlines fly over combat zones all the time. When the US deployed troops in Afghanistan in 2011, airplanes didn't suddenly avoid the airspace over the country altogether, says one expert.

"Planes were still flying over Afghanistan. They'd fly a specific routing at altitudes that were quote-unquote 'safe,'" says Seth Miller, an independent aviation analyst and blogger. "That's not uncommon at all."

Likewise, as the BBC reports, there are only a few big trouble spots — Syria, North Korea, and Somalia — that airlines generally avoid. And Business Insider and the Washington Post note that the route MH17 flew was popular for several airlines. However, different airlines independently set their own policies for where they will and will not fly.