European aviation authorities have confirmed that the downed Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was flying 1,000 ft above what was judged to be dangerous airspace due to the ongoing conflict in the region.
Eurocontrol – the organisation charged with managing the European air transport network – said Flight MH17 had been travelling at Flight Level 330 – approximately 10,000 metres/33,000 feet – when it disappeared from radar.
“This route had been closed by the Ukrainian authorities from ground to Flight Level 320 but was open at the level at which the aircraft was flying,” it said.
All 280 passengers and 15 crew members on board a Boeing 777-200 aircraft died in the Malaysia Airlines crash in Ukraine, amid claims of a missile attack.
Malaysia Airlines said it had received notification from Ukrainian air traffic control Uksatse that it had lost contact with flight MH17 at 1415 (GMT) at 30km from TAMAK waypoint, approximately 50km from the Russia-Ukraine border.
“Flight MH17 operated on a Boeing 777 departed Amsterdam at 12.15pm (Amsterdam local time) and was estimated to arrive at Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 6.10 am (Malaysia local time) the next day,” it said.
TAMAK is the waypoint where the air routes L980 and L69 converge over the boundary between Dnipropetrovsk airspace in Ukraine and Rostov-on-Don airspace in Russia.
The aircraft which had been at cruise flight came down at Torez, near Shakhtersk, some 40 km (25 miles) from the Russia border. The area has been the scene of fighting between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian rebels.
In a statement Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak said that according to information provided by Kiev air traffic control, the location of the aircraft’s emergency locator beacon is 48 degrees 7 minutes and 23 seconds North; 38 degrees 31 minutes and 33 seconds East.
He said that the aircraft’s flight route had been declared safe by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and that no distress had been made by the flight crew.
There has been a tense stand-off for some time in the war of the airways between Ukraine and the Russia Federation over who controls flights in and out of Crimea.
Earlier this year, UN aviation agency ICAO insisted that the right to provide air navigation services in international airspace over the Black Sea within the Simferopol flight information region (FIR) belonged exclusively to Ukraine.
On April 3 European Aviation Safety Agency issued a safety bulletin – accompanied by recommendations from both ICAO and Eurocontrol which oversees the regional aviation network – that airspace controlled by the Simferopol FIR should be avoided as more than one air traffic control agency controlling flights within the same airspace could have serious safety implications.
The United States’ Federal Aviation Administration also issued a Notice to Airman (NOTAM) prohibiting US airlines to operate in the airspace over the Crimean region, adjacent to the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.
It said the unilateral and illegal action by Russia to assert control over Crimean airspace created the potential for conflicting air traffic control instructions from Ukrainian and Russian authorities and for potential misidentification of civil aircraft.
Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko called the downing of Flight MH17 an act of terrorism and called for an international investigation into the crash.
In an official statement, the defense ministry of the Russian Federation denied any involvement in the air crash: “One should pay attention to the fact that Boeing 777 was conducting the flight beyond the range of air defence systems of the Russian Federation. The aircraft was flying in the airspace of Ukraine, under the control of its air traffic management system.”
Eurocontrol said the Ukrainian authorities have now informed it of the closure of all routes ‘from the ground to unlimited’ in the Dnipropetrovsk FIR in Eastern Ukraine. “All flight plans that are filed using these routes are now being rejected by Eurocontrol. The routes will remain closed until further notice,” it said.
The FAA added that it was in contact with US carriers following the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 and confirmed that carriers have voluntarily agreed not operate in the airspace near the Russian-Ukraine border. “The FAA is monitoring the situation to determine whether further guidance is necessary,” it said.
That will have a severe impact on Europe-South East Asia flights as Nico Voorbach, president of the pilots organisation European Cockpit Association, pointed out: “The route flown by the lost Malaysian aircraft is the most common route for flights from Europe to South East Asia.”
It has been a route avoided by Australian carrier Qantas for several months as separatist fights in the region intensified. Prior to the conflict in Ukraine, there were about 300 to 400 daily flights over the region, although in recent months, that has fallen to around 100 a day. Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific said it had not flown over the area for some time while Singapore Airlines said it no longer used Ukrainian airspace.
Airlines industry chief Tony Tyler of IATA said: “No airline will risk the safety of their passengers, crew and aircraft for the sake of fuel savings. Airlines depend on governments and air traffic control authorities to advise which air space is available for flight, and they plan within those limits. 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. Civil aircraft are not military targets. Governments agreed that in the Chicago Convention. And what happened with MH17 is a tragedy for 298 souls that should not have happened in any airspace.”
ICAO said it was not responsible for issuing warnings about potential dangers such as military conflicts, saying that duty fell to individual nations. “ICAO does not declare airspace safe or unsafe or undertake any other direct operational responsibilities with respect to civilian air services,”it said. “It is always the responsibility of our sovereign member states to advise other states of potential safety hazards.”
Eurocontrol said a grouping of European air traffic control agencies called the European Aviation Crisis Coordination Cell is being activated to coordinate the response to the impact of the airspace closure.