Why planes fly through dangerous airspace

Malaysian Airline

Flights over Ukraine remain minimal on July 18th, 2014 a day after the Maylasian Airline flight MH17 was shot down.

The downed Malaysia Airlines jet has passengers and airlines alike asking new questions about safety, wondering why the company stuck to a flight path directly over a volatile conflict zone. President Obama says it appears the plane was shot down by a missile from Ukrainian land controlled by pro-Russian forces.

Ukrainian authorities had closed the flight path up to 32,000 feet. But Flight MH17 was above that altitude. Even before the incident, some airlines avoided the area altogether. Malaysia Airlines, however, stayed the course, as did several other carriers. A less efficient flight path means more money spent on fuel, crews and maintenance. So it’s not a decision carriers take lightly.

“This industry has gotten so dog-eat-dog and so competitive that they’re looking at the bottom line far more than they ever have in the history of this industry,” says University of Portland finance professor Richard Gritta, who has long studied commercial aviation.

The strict cost cutting of modern airlines is striking to those who remember aviation’s glamorous golden age. Retired American Airlines pilot Jim Tilmon remembers taking a plane hundreds of miles off its planned path to avoid nasty weather and provide a more comfortable ride for passengers.

“I did burn a little bit more fuel, but it wasn’t a big deal. It wasn’t so much that the airline got upset,” Tilmon remembers.

With airlines facing high fuel prices and relentless shareholder pressure, pilots today don’t expect their employers to be so lenient.

Mark Garrison: Airlines use computer modeling and human judgment to choose flight plans. Basically, they look at two things, says aviation consultant George Hamlin.

George Hamlin: The first thing is safety. The considerations after that are basically you would like to do that at the lowest possible cost.

A less efficient flight path means more money spent on fuel, crews and maintenance. So it’s not a decision carriers take lightly. Ukrainian authorities had closed the flight path up to 32,000 feet. But Flight MH17 was above that. Some airlines still avoided the area altogether, paying more for extra safety. Malaysia Airlines stayed the course, as did several other carriers.

Richard Gritta: This industry has gotten so dog eat dog and so competitive that they’re looking at the bottom line far more than they ever have in the history of this industry.

University of Portland finance professor Richard Gritta says a longer flight path may only cost a few dollars more per seat. But multiply that over all the flights and it takes a real bite out of profits.

Gritta: It becomes a fairly big deal, especially if you’re flying that route several times a day.

Strict cost cutting is why you don’t often hear captains of today’s commercial jets talk like Jim Tilmon.

Jim Tilmon: I’ve flown hundreds of miles around weather to keep my passengers secure and safe and comfortable.

Tilmon was a longtime American Airlines pilot, whose career included air travel’s golden age.

Tilmon: I did burn a little bit more fuel, but it wasn’t a big deal. It wasn’t so much that the airline got upset because I did that.

With companies facing high fuel prices and shareholder pressure, pilots today don’t expect their employers to be so lenient. I'm Mark Garrison, for Marketplace.

About the author

Mark Garrison is a reporter and substitute host for Marketplace, based in New York.

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