Don't Blame Malaysia Airlines

Four other airlines flew along this Ukrainian route more frequently than the beleaguered flag carrier of Malaysia did. Would we make the same assumptions about negligence if the rocket had hit a Lufthansa airplane? The people to blame here are the ones who brought the plane down.

I have an op-ed in Saturday morning's NYT, whose title gets across its point: "Don't Blame Malaysia Airlines."

Short version: Airlines rely on regulators and national and international bodies to tell them about airspace they should avoid. Absent such warnings, airspace is presumptively legal and safe for transit. MH17 was following the rules by staying out of no-fly and warning zones. A terrible crime and disaster occurred, but that is not Malaysia Air's fault.

Shorter still: According to Spiegel (German version here), while some airlines, including Air France, had changed their routes to avoid Ukraine, most did not. Many other airlines took a path similar to the one on which MH17 was shot down, notably including Lufthansa. Here is Spiegel's chart of how many planes had gone this way in the week before yesterday's disaster;
 

Airlines that have recently flown most often across Ukraine. Four others come before Malaysia Air.

Lufthansa, as flag carrier for that paragon of efficiency, Germany, had taken the route more often than did Malaysia Air. So too (according to Spiegel, with data from FlightRadar.com) with Singapore Airlines, famously high-end and responsible airline. Any of them could have met the fate that tragically befell the 298 people on MH17. Indeed, also according to Spiegel, some other first-world airliners were not far from MH17 when it was shot down. Somehow I suspect that if it had been a Lufthansa plane that was attacked, there would be fewer starting-point assumptions that the carrier had somehow been cutting corners at the cost of its passengers' safety. (Thanks to Chua Chin Hon of the Straits Times for noticing this graphic.)

Malaysia Airlines and its home country, where all of the flight crew and more than 40 of the passengers came from, are among the damaged parties in this case, not among those doing damage. Sympathies to them and all others affected by this catastrophe.

Update see the remarks from the always-sensible Patrick Smith at Ask the Pilot. Among his points:

It is fairly routine for civilian jetliners to overfly areas of conflict. Dozens of airline flights pass each day over Baghdad, for example (many of them land there). I’ve personally piloted flights over eastern Ukraine, close to where the Malaysia Airlines 777 met its fate on Thursday....

In a lot of respects these tragedies are less about air safety than they are about dangers and conflicts on the ground. If a government or rogue faction shoots down a commercial plane, is that really an “air safety issue”? 

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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