Despite recent events in Ukraine and Israel, flying over hot spots is business as usual

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Aaron Schachter: When you hear that a missile has taken down a plane it isn't so shocking that you might be nervous about flying. That kind of skittishness may have been a factor in yesterday's decision by some airlines and the FAA to suspend flights into Israel. The decision came after a rocket fired by Palestinian militants landed close to Israel's main gateway - Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv. Patrick Smith is an airline pilot and the host of AskThePilot.com. So I asked him how he would feel about flying into Ben Gurion right now. Patrick Smith: It’s possible, Aaron, that there’s some intel coming from the ground that we’re not privy to that would justify this prohibition. It's interesting to me that most of the big European carriers have followed suit and banned their flights as well from landing at Ben Gurion. Usually it's the Americans who are squeamish and a bit overreactive and the Europeans just keep forging ahead, but they too have backed off at least for now which makes me think, "Well, maybe this is more than just a knee-jerk overreaction and maybe it's not just being done really as a reaction to the Malaysia 17 disaster and then not so much to any rockets landing around Ben Gurion airport." Schachter: It sounds like though, based on what we do know, you'd be totally fine. Smith: Well, having said what I just said, my hunch is maybe that it is a little bit of a, I just have a feeling it's an overreaction. Schachter: There have been a lot of protests in Europe over the Israeli military action in Gaza. I wonder if, at least from an European sense, perhaps there is some, I don't know, some kind of politics at work here. Smith: I tend to doubt that. Airlines aren't political animals in that way. Airlines are businesses and they make their decisions based mostly that way, not on political motivations. Schachter: OK. Now, we're talking about landing a plane at an airport that appears to be dangerous, but the issue with the Malaysia plane was flying over a war zone. Is that unusual? Smith: No, not really. And this is something that a lot of people don't realize, which is that thousands of commercial planes fly over the rest of the hostile areas of the world every single day and really that's normal. I mean pilots have to stay on specific airways as we call them, sometimes particular altitudes, and sometimes whole areas are off limits entirely. And although compliance with those restrictions is obviously important, it's not difficult and flying through these areas really, to this point anyway, has never been dangerous. It's perfectly routine. And I'm a little nervous because the media now is just making such a big deal about this, you know, "Oh my God, did you know that all of these flights have been flying over these hostile areas and people are cancelling flights." And I think we need to look at each area of the world separately, independently, and make our decisions that way and not simply assume that every piece of airspace over a hostile area is as dangerous as that little corner of Ukraine turned out to be. And maybe, in retrospect, that airspace should not have been open in the first place, but it was and Malaysia Airlines was one of many airlines, I believe Lufthansa, many of the big European and Middle Eastern and Asian carriers, they had been using what had been determined to be safe airspace. Schachter: Well, the thing is though that about twelve warplanes have been shot down in recent weeks somewhere in eastern Ukraine, including at least two at fairly high altitude. You don't have to be an expert in aviation to see that that area might be a little dangerous. Smith: Right. And then that speaks to what I was just saying. Looking back on it, perhaps that airspace should not have been open, but really that wasn't the carrier's job to determine that and it's possible that a mistake was made. Schachter: I appreciate that it's not a carrier's job to close an airspace, but if you see that there is that danger might you, as a airline, say, "No, we're not going to go that way." Smith: Airlines do that. And local authorities - in our case the FAA - are free to prohibit airlines from their countries from flying over certain areas even if those areas are said to be safe by the local authorities. And OK, Russia and Ukraine were saying that their airspace was safe, but maybe that wasn't for them to decide, and, again, this is looking back in retrospect and maybe this now sets a new precedent, that we have to look at these cases more carefully and decide from there. But, again, to be cautious, that's not to say that every unstable area of the world should be off limits to air travel. We need to not overreact and look at each area independently and carefully. Schachter: Now, again, you say we don't necessarily know all the details about the situation with Israel, but what differences between the situations in Israel and Ukraine jump out at you? Smith: Well, the rocket that shot down the Malaysia 17 was not a portable weapon of any kind. It was a very large missile, the kind of thing that's fired from the back of a tank-like truck. I mean this was a large sophisticated piece of military hardware. Meanwhile, sure, a small rocket can damage or even bring down a commercial plane, that goes without saying, but there's a major difference between what did happen in Ukraine and what could happen in Israel. Again, I'm not saying that the prohibition of flights into Israel was a bad idea. I just have a feeling that it may have been an overreaction, but there is probably a lot that we don't know about why that decision was made. Schachter: Patrick Smith, airline pilot and author of "Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know about Air Travel". Thanks a lot. Smith: Thank you. Schachter: So anything I missed there in that discussion with Patrick? We're taking your questions about flight safety and how airlines decide where it's safe to fly. You can ask Patrick Smith yourself via our Facebook page. Head over there right now and ask away - Facebook.com/pritheworld.