On any given day, there are about 100,000 commercial airline flights, flying more than 50,000 routes, around a world where armed conflict is always occurring, somewhere.
As companies send business travelers on assignments that often venture into — and even more often over — dangerous areas, employers have become ever more cognizant of a legal and ethical issue called duty of care. This means, basically, that employers need to take reasonable precautions to ensure a “safe working environment” for travelers as it is described in a 2012 report, “Duty of Care: Are You Covered?” by the corporate risk-management and security company iJet. This includes evaluating security conditions in destination countries, knowing their employees’ whereabouts and keeping in contact.
But the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on Thursday near the Ukraine border could add a new factor for employers and “has considerable implications for companies and business-travel managers responsible for duty of care,” said Greeley Koch, executive director of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives. “Will it now be necessary for travel departments to make sure that preferred carriers do not overfly war zones, areas of civil conflict or regions of crisis?”
That, of course, would be a tall order, but the downing of the commercial airliner, evidently by a sophisticated military surface-to-air missile capable of hitting planes at high altitudes, underlines growing complexities in duty-of-care matters. While obviously no airline or company deliberately puts people at risk, “sometimes new risks are identified and steps have to be taken,” Koch said.
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It isn’t clear what those steps might be, but travel managers have told the association that they are evaluating the specific air-travel issues raised by the Flight 17 disaster. Top among these are questions about the prudence of flying over a troubled region where combatants had recently shot down a Ukrainian military transport plane at about 21,000 feet. While there had been international aviation prohibitions on flying over Crimea, farther south, the operative orders for the area where Flight 17 was downed said the route was safe for flying — at higher than 32,000 feet. Flight 17, bound from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, was at 33,000 feet, on a standard airway heavily used until recently by hundreds of flights between northern Europe and Asia.
“This is a well-established international route,” said Anthony C. Roman, a security consultant who is also a former commercial pilot and flight instructor. “It’s regularly traversed by other airlines. However, in April, the European aviation authorities issued warnings to member states that the Crimea area should be avoided. In May, the FAA actually restricted flights over Crimea itself and warned about eastern Ukraine.”
He added: Airlines often decide “it’s the smartest route; the most available route; the route is legally available; and as long as it’s legally available, we will fly it. Or likely it’s a combination of these things.”
As to corporate duty of care, Roman points out, managers planning employee travel have no knowledge of the routings of particular aircraft, which are determined by airline dispatchers, subject to in-flight modifications by captain and air-traffic control, including for weather or congestion. And given the growing overlapping routes caused by growing consolidation in global airline alliances, it may not even be immediately apparent which airline is even flying the plane. Malaysia Flight 17, for example, was also a code share for KLM Flight 4103 — and most of the passengers on the plane were Dutch citizens who had most likely booked through KLM.
Avoiding Ukraine’s skies
Airlines rerouting around Ukraine airspace face tough choices and potential controversy. On Sunday, for example, Flightradar24, the real-time global flight-tracking service, showed that Malaysia Airlines Flight 4 from Kuala Lumpur to London, an A380 capable of carrying 494 passengers, flew over Syria, rather than taking its usual route over Ukraine. A year ago, the Federal Aviation Administration warned U.S. carriers of a potential danger in Syrian skies from surface-to-air missiles.
Malaysia Airlines said Flight 4 over Syria “was in airspace approved by the International Civil Aviation Organization.”
Airlines now avoid Ukraine’s skies. Maps on Flightradar24.com show Ukraine as a vast hole within the air-traffic network in Europe, Russia and Asia.
On Monday, for example, only a handful of commercial flights were over Ukraine, all of them on approach or departure from Boryspil International Airport near Kiev, which is 350 miles west of the Flight 17 crash site near Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. Radar showed a narrow river of flights bowing along the western Russian border with Ukraine and over the Black Sea, and a very broad river of flights to the west of Ukraine between Europe, the Mediterranean and Asia.
Reacting to the Flight 17 disaster, some airlines rushed to announce that they had not been flying over Ukraine for some time — but Flightradar24.com posted on Twitter right after the Malaysia crash that “several airlines that have been tracked over Ukraine as late as yesterday claim they have been avoiding Ukraine for months.”
Flightradar24 did not name those airlines. Over the weekend, Finnair had to backtrack after it was called out on social media for claiming that “Finnair does not fly over Ukraine. Your safety is our top priority.”
Flightradar24 data showed that the airline was in fact flying over western Ukraine in recent days. Finnair subsequently conceded that Flightradar24 was correct and said it had stopped flying over Ukraine.