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Is Air Travel Safe?

Malaysian and OSCE investigators examine a piece of the crashed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in eastern Ukraine, July 23, 2014.

Malaysian and OSCE investigators examine a piece of the crashed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in eastern Ukraine, July 23, 2014.

It has been a bad two weeks for air travel.

Last week, Malaysia Airline flight MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine killing all 298 passengers and crew. On Wednesday, July 23, two Ukrainian military planes were shot down in the same airspace.

On the same day a TransAsia Airways plane crashed in bad weather on the island of Penghu, Taiwan, killing almost 50 people.

On Thursday, an Air Algeria plane was missing on a flight from Burkina Faso to Algeria with 116 people on board. Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita announced later in the day that searchers had spotted the wreckage.

These tragedies all followed the mysterious disappearance earlier this year of Malaysian Airline 370. The plane was flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Investigators have found no sign of the plane or its 239 passengers

Whether a crash is the results of bad weather, broken equipment, pilot mistake or surface-to-air missiles, the question remains – is air travel safe?

Christopher Cruise brings us that story.

U.S. temporarily banned flights to Israel

U.S. flight officials this week temporarily banned U.S. airline companies from flying to Israel’s Ben-Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv. The ban lasted for 24 hours following a rocket strike near the airport.

The temporary ban took place after a Malaysian airplane was shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing 298 people. But experts say that air travel worldwide remains by far the safest way to travel.

Canceled and delayed flights in Tel Aviv, Israel, July 23, 2014.

Canceled and delayed flights in Tel Aviv, Israel, July 23, 2014.

America’s Federal Aviation Administration banned aircraft from flying to and from Israel's Ben-Gurion airport. The ban came in the form of what is called a Notice to Airmen. The F.A.A. acted after a rocket struck about two kilometers from the airport area.

The European Aviation Safety Agency Tuesday called for similar action. Its Safety Information bulletin strongly suggested that airspace users stop operating to and from the airport in Tel Aviv.

Delta Airlines Flight 468 was on its way from New York to Tel Aviv with 290 passengers and crew when the F.A.A. declared the ban. The plane was sent to Paris instead of Tel Aviv. Daniel Leon was aboard that flight.

"Delta had to do what Delta had to do. It’s quite unfortunate that we were literally an hour before landing in Ben-Gurion. But, I respect the decision, right. I mean, they’ve got some rules that they have to obey, and they explained to us why they were doing it. There was a bit of confusion on the plane earlier on. But, I think, we’re on the ground now, they were extremely helpful."

But Israeli officials say there is no security problem. Transport Minister Yisrael Katz said there was no reason to cancel flights and no reason to surrender to terrorism.

On Tuesday, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he was traveling to Tel Aviv on El Al Airlines to show support for the Israeli people. He also meant to prove that the airport there is safe. Mr. Bloomberg called the flight restrictions a mistake that would give Hamas an unearned victory.

Marie Harf is a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department. In Washington earlier this week, she said the F.A.A. safety notice is meant to guarantee public safety. Ms. Harf says it is not a political statement directed at Israel about its operation against Hamas militants in Gaza.

"I would note that, in 2012, the (State) Department also issued travel warnings for Israel, the West Bank and Gaza in March, August, and December. So, this is a step we have taken when we felt the situation on the ground warranted it. Obviously, that is a process that we go through that in no way is policy-related or politically-related. It is just related to how we can best protect American citizens. The FAA makes these decisions when they feel it’s warranted, again, for the safety of United States citizens. And they, in response to the recent attack at Ben-Gurion Airport, in the vicinity of Ben-Gurion Airport, after consultation with U.S. operators, felt today that it was important to issue this notice."

Malaysian Airliner Crash

Concern about airline safety also follows last week’s shooting down of

Armed pro-Russian separatists stand guard at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17. (REUTERS July 2014)

Armed pro-Russian separatists stand guard at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17. (REUTERS July 2014)

Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine. U.S. intelligence suggests poorly-trained pro-Russian separatists are responsible. They are suspected of having used a Russian-made surface-to-air missile.

Scott Hamilton serves as an expert in aircraft use with the Leeham Company. He says the F.A.A. ban is not unusual.

“The FAA has been issuing no-fly zones for quite a while and, in fact, since the Malaysian (MH17) shoot down, there have been a number of maps that have shown up on the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere that have identified where there are no-fly zones or restricted-area fly zones that the FAA has issues. And, some of those go back years, if not decades, Somalia, for example, northern Kenya. Those have been in existence for quite some time.”

The F.A.A. has also restricted U.S. flights over Ethiopia, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Somalia and Ukraine. It identifies the following countries as possible hostile areas: Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Iran, Kenya, Mali, Syria and Yemen.

Is Commercial Flying Still the Safest Way to Travel?

Airline Captain John Cox is also chief executive officer of the Washington-based company Safety Operating Systems. He says it is very safe to fly commercial aircraft.

“In spite of the tragic loss of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 and the Malaysian Flight 370, it has never been safer to fly. We flew 3.3-billion passengers last year. We had the lowest fatality rate in recorded history. These tragedies do not change the fact of the safety of our aviation system.”

Mr. Cox expressed deep concern about non-military groups having weapons like the SA-11 air-defense system.

“The failure to correctly identify that airplane (MH17) was unconscionable, it was inept. Military organizations don’t have that kind of failure. Never in history have we had a surface-to-air missile rise to a cruising altitude of a commercial jet, over 30,000 feet (9100 meters).”

Mr. Cox said there are not great numbers of such missile systems in existence. He added that there will be a joint effort to restrict flying over airspace in areas where open conflict happens.

I’m Christopher Cruise.

This report was written by Victor Beattie and adapted by Anna Matteo.

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