Passenger jets still flying over conflict zones

KLM boeing 787
A Boeing 787 Dreamliner in the KLM livery (Rendering: KLM)A Boeing 787 Dreamliner in the KLM livery (Rendering: KLM)

Dozens of passenger planes are still flying over war zones and conflict areas - such as Mali, South Sudan and Sinai - on a daily basis. This includes airlines KLM and Air France as well as other European airlines such as Lufthansa and British Airways.

This is according to a study done by NOS, in which the broadcasters took random samples from the databases of websites and - websites that show current and past flights all over the world.

After the disaster with flight MH17 it was decided that every conflict zone would be reassessed on the risk involved in flying over it.  A United Nations task force was also established to investigate whether new rules should be implemented. In some cases a total flight ban was imposed, in others a "safe altitude" is advised. Such a Notice to Airmen, or NOTAM, was also in place for Eastern Ukraine at the time of the MH17 disaster.

The disaster resulted in the aviation sector resolving to not fly over conflict zones any longer. Airlines no longer use the airspace over Iraq, Syria and Lybia. But the policy for Mali, Sinai and Sudan seems to be unchanged, according to the NOS study.

KLM has always firmly denied flying over conflict areas. Earlier this year KLM CEO Pieter Elbers said to NOS that his airline does not fly over conflict areas like the Sinai desert, where the Egyptian army is fighting jihadists and from where rockets are fired towards Israel. "We do not fly over these parts. And we also do not fly over Mali for example."

NOS' study discovered, however, that KLM regularly fly over Sinai with its flight KL411 to Dammam in Saudi-Arabia.  Flight KL589, which departs from Schiphol to Accra, Ghana every day, flies over Malie and return flight KL590 follows the same route. Both Flight KL353 to Kigali in Rwanda and flight KL536 from Entebbe in Uganda fly over South Sudan. Partner Air France regularly fly over Mali with flight AF702 to the Ivory Coast.

In response to new questions a KLM spokesperson told NOS last week: "Concerning flying over the Sinai desert and Mali, KLM still does not fly over these areas." Confronted with the flight data, a spokesperson conceded that these flights are indeed carried out, but at a safe altitude. "Like others we do a risk assessment. That is dependent on many factors." He added that they fly only in compliance with the NOTAM advice.

Aviation expert Benno Baksteen told the broadcaster that while it is airlines' natural tendency to claim that safety comes first, this is not always the case. "In defining a route it is always a trade-off. If you make a detour, you can carry extra fuel, but then you have to leave passengers. And then it becomes a more expensive flight. A flight must be affordable." When considering flight routes, according to Baksteen, the weapons present in the area are taken into account - if there are only small weapons, with a limited scope, it is excessive to avoid the area completely.

D66 Parliamentarian Wassila Hachchi wants State Secretary Wilma Mansveld of Infrastructure to get this matter in order on a national level. "Full information, including from intelligence and security services, must e available to those who determine flight routes." Hachchi said to NOS. "And airlines must be clear about their flight routes - and not hide it like KLM apparently."