Malaysia Airlines took a gamble to fly over war-torn Ukraine to save on fuel. But it was not the only airline to take that risk.
Three large airliners set off from Amsterdam, Paris and Copenhagen for south-east Asia yesterday afternoon European time, all destined to cross the airspace over the eastern Ukraine where one them, the Malaysia Airlines 777-200ER , was to be destroyed by a ground-launched missile fired by pro-Russian separatists.
All 298 people on board died. The Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was at 33,000 feet in broad daylight and good visibility in a well-travelled corridor deemed “safe” by the air traffic control authorities in Europe and the Ukraine at heights above 32,000 feet, on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.
The flight path of MH17
Eleven minutes after MH17 took off for KL, a Singapore Airlines A380 took off from Paris, also destined to traverse the same airspace, en route to Singapore. However at the moment MH17 was shot out of the sky, the Paris departure SQ333 was further north and well to the west of the Malaysian flight. It wouldn’t have seen its demise.
About 32 minutes after MH17 left Amsterdam, a Singapore Airlines 777-200ER, operating as SQ351, took off from Copenhagen bound for Singapore via the same skies, above a war zone in which two other aircraft had been shot down earlier this week — one a Ukrainian military cargo plane and the other one of its jet fighters.
SQ351 was even further away when the Malaysian flight was butchered by what was almost certainly a Russian BUK surface-to-air or SAM missile.
The flight path of Singapore Airlines SQ333, an A380, that missed the missile yesterday
As the two unharmed flights, and probably a number of others, safely continued on their journeys, the air traffic authorities in Europe and the Ukraine hastily closed the air routes they had used.
But with 298 people slaughtered this is far too late to head off the outrage over the fact that the air routes above 32,000 feet were declared safe, and that carriers like Malaysia Airlines and Singapore Airlines had flown where carriers like Qantas and many others had refused to go for at least two months.
What logic, what lack of sensitivity, and what lack of basic decency influenced Singapore Airlines and Malaysia Airlines and others to expose their passengers to the risks of flying over a war zone where aircraft had already been shot down? Did they even consider them? If they did, why did they get it so wrong?
It is clear from the flight maps that for flights between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore and similarly located hubs, less fuel is burned by continuing to use these air routes across the Ukraine.
But they’ve lost more passengers. What a terrible, ghastly and hideous failure of duty of care on the part of Malaysia Airlines. And how lucky was Singapore Airlines, and no doubt others?
Ben Sandilands has reported and analysed the mechanical mobility of humanity since late 1960 - the end of the age of great scheduled ocean liners and coastal steamers and the start of the jet age. He’s worked in newspapers, radio and TV in a wide range of roles as a journalist at home and abroad for 56 years, the last 18 freelance.