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Big bluff in high skies

HOW AIR INDIA AND JET AIRWAYS FLEW OVER UKRAINE BEFORE THE CRASH OF MH-17 ON JULY 17 AND THEIR DETOUR SINCE THEN

New Delhi, July 20: Flight tracking data have called into question the claims of Air India and Jet Airways on when they began skirting flight paths over Ukraine.

Last week, the two Indian airlines had said they had started skirting either the war zone in Ukraine or the country altogether almost three months ago when the conflict first broke out in the region — ensuring that the safety of their passengers was never at risk.

But data from flight-tracking website Flightradar24 do not support the claims made by the civil aviation ministry and the two airlines.

Data history of the flight paths taken by planes operated by the two airlines showed that they were flying close to Donetsk — the nerve centre of the strife-torn region — up until July 17.

The two airlines had issued statements to soothe passengers’ fears after Malaysia Airlines’ MH-17 was downed by a missile and all 298 people on board were killed on July 17.

Soon after MH-17 went down, an Air India spokesperson had said: “Air India flights were not flying the airway paths which fell in the conflict zone. Though we were using Ukrainian airspace till the crash took place, we were flying in an airway path which was nowhere near the conflict zone. We stopped flying over Ukraine completely after the crash.”

Jet Airways made an even bolder assertion. It claimed on its website: “Jet Airways would like to assure its guests that none of the Jet Airways flights to and from Europe fly through the Ukrainian airspace ever since the conflict began, and we continue to avoid the Ukrainian airspace in the prime interest of the safety of our guests.”

Data from Flightradar24 showed that the two cash-strapped airlines routinely went down a popular highway in the sky that aviators call L980. The sky highway is a key link between key airports in Europe like London’s Heathrow, Amsterdam’s Schiphol and Germany’s Frankfurt and Asian megapolises like Delhi, Singapore and Hong Kong.

The data showed that Air India’s Boeing 777-337ERs on flight AIC-111 from Delhi to Heathrow flew via Horlivka, close to Donetsk, on July 10, 12, 13 and 16. It is the region where MH-17 was brought down. (See map showing conflict zone)

On July 15, an Air India B-787 Dreamliner flight from Delhi to Birmingham flew through insurgency centres such as Donetsk, Luhansk and Poltava at an altitude of 40,000 feet in daylight at 1307 hours.

Donetsk and Poltava are areas where the Ukrainian army and pro-Russian rebels are engaged in a bloody battle and have been using advanced weaponry, including missiles.

On other dates, the planes flew about 150km southwest of Donetsk. Jet Airways’ Airbus 330s on flight 9W-230 between Delhi and Brussels flew close to Donetsk on July 8, 10, 12 and 15. On other days, the two airlines flew through Zaporizhia, southwest of Donetsk.

The data show that the planes of both Air India and Jet typically flew at a height of 36,000 feet — marginally above MH-17’s 33,000 feet. Some estimates say the Buk missile can hit targets up to 72,000 feet.

The Sunday Times, the weekend edition of The Times of India, had reported that an Air India Dreamliner from Delhi to Birmingham was less than 25km away when the Malaysian plane went down.

Aviation veterans said Air India should have avoided the conflict zone. “When the airline had decided not to fly through the conflict zone, they should have stuck to the decision. Until MH-17 was shot down, no one considered the route risky. Even so, the route should have been avoided. Passenger lives could have been at stake,” said Robin Pathak, former Air India director.

On Sunday, Air India officials said they stood by their earlier statement, insisting that they were nowhere near the conflict zone.

Asked to comment on the flight paths shown by the flight tracking website, the officials said they would be able to answer technical questions only on Monday as the senior operations in-charge was not in town. A questionnaire that was emailed to the airline also went unanswered.

A Jet Airways spokesperson confined himself to saying the airline was not flying through Ukrainian airspace.

Flight tracking websites typically use information that a plane sends out through its transponders to satellites to determine the flight path. They also source information from the FAA, the US aviation authority.

Flightradar24 data show that Air India and Jet Airways weren’t alone in flying through the region: British Airways, Air France, Lufthansa and KLM had also used the same route in the recent past. However, Australia’s Qantas and Korean Air started avoiding the route soon after the conflict broke out in the region.

Since the MH-17 crash, Jet Airways flights have been travelling deep south of Ukraine

Air India chose to go far north of Ukraine on July 18, going through Lahore and Kabul before veering north through Uzbekistan, Belarus, northern Poland and Germany before touching down in Brussels.

On the very next day, it swooped south via Quetta in Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Romania, Hungary, Austria, and Germany before landing in Brussels.

The L980 has been the preferred route because it is the shortest distance between Europe and key cities in Asia, helping loss-laden airlines save on fuel costs.

One reason why airlines continued to fly through eastern Ukraine was that none of the authorities had red-flagged the route as a conflict zone to be avoided.

On April 23, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of the US had issued a notice to airmen (NOTAM) that barred US carriers from flying over the Crimean region and portions close to the Black Sea. But it didn’t cover the region where MH-17 went down.

Since the crash, the FAA has warned US carriers to avoid Ukraine as well. There are several other hotspots the FAA has warned US carriers to avoid: Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Yemen, Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Democratic Republic of Congo and North Korea.

The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) in India hasn’t been as drastic because that would leave domestic airlines with virtually no options to fly to Europe. But it has advised the two airlines to avoid Ukraine, which they now seem to have done.