On July 17, the Malaysia Airline flight MH17 crashed near the Ukraine-Russia border, believed to have been brought down by one or more groups in the conflict-ridden region. It appears that the surface to air missiles that brought it down weren’t trying to target commercial aircraft at all (which is unsurprising), but were targetting aircraft from one of the other groups involved. They simply failed to identify the aircraft correctly before bringing it down.
There were 298 people on MH17, all of them presumably dead. There were at least two other aircraft within about 15 miles of MH17 when it was brought down. After the incident, all airlines have naturally been giving the region a wide berth. (This, in some ways, is faintly comical. There is no way an aircraft is going to be targeted over that region anytime soon. Yes?)
About eight days before the incident, I was on an Etihad flight from Abu Dhabi to Los Angeles. I hadn’t realized until I was on the flight how far to the north it would go. Great circles work in surprising ways, I suppose. As you can see from the flight path in the photo, it went over parts of Iran, some regions of Russia, then over Norway and Greenland, and then Canada, before entering the US. Even as I saw the flight path, I was thinking to myself that we were going to fly over, or at least near many unstable regions. I had never wondered before whether airlines did or didn’t avoid these regions, but it was now clear that they didn’t. The operating costs of fuel and time meant that the potential risks of flying over those regions were ignored, and I didn’t exactly blame the airlines for it either. It is a business of thin margins, after all. Furthermore, it was somewhat exciting to fly over all these exotic places that I despair of ever visiting, thanks to the conflicts raging there, and also exciting to fly over some exotic places that I have in fact visited. Besides, the flight path included such a wide range of landscapes, from deserts to snowfields, that I had no complaints. I also thought that the altitude of the flight was probably enough to make it safe, because I assumed that the conflicts were all largely restricted to the ground.
The story of MH17 told me how wrong I was. That aircraft was 33000 feet above ground, and the belief was that anything above 32000 feet was safe. And yet it was brought down. The people on board were in no way, shape, or form connected to the conflict and even to call them collateral damage feels like a farce. And last of all, the fact that it happened to a Malaysia Airlines aircraft, just over four months after one of their vessels inexplicably disappeared along with 239 people on board is the kind of bad luck that tops all bad luck. It is possible that the airline may not survive this.
That is what strikes me the most about this situation. Of all the airlines flying in that region, of all aircraft of all the airlines flying in that region, it had to be an MH flight all over again. I mean, what are the chances of that? If a novel or a movie had two such unlikely incidents happen to the same airline just four months apart, it would be derided for being unrealistic. But here were are again, in a place where fact is proving to be so much stranger than fiction. (And so it perhaps makes sense for other aircraft to continue to avoid the region, even though the horse has bolted, as it were.) If the story weren’t so outrageously real and so outrageously tragic, and, frankly, just generally outrageous, it would in fact be darkly comic.