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Is It Safe to Fly Malaysia Airlines?

This story appeared originally on MainStreet on Thursday, July 24

NEW YORK ( MainStreet) -- Since March, Malaysia's flag carrier has lost two Boeing 777s with all souls on board. Five months before Ukrainian rebels shot down Flight MH17 another plane , Flight MH370 bound for Beijing, vanished and presumably crashed into the Indian Ocean . In the wake of these back-to-back disasters, travelers have begun abandoning Malaysia Airlines in droves, taking ticket sales and share prices with them. Plenty of other future fliers have begun wondering whether they should do the same thing.

It's unfortunate, according to commercial pilot and author of Cockpit Confidential Patrick Smith, because the only statement these high-profile disasters make is that Malaysia Airlines is the unluckiest company in the world.

"I don't think either incident was in any way the airline's fault or responsibility," Smith said. "It's important because people are going to say, 'Wait a minute, now. What were they doing flying over Ukraine, that area is known to be dangerous?'" 

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The common traveler looking up future flights may indeed question what Malaysia Airlines was doing flying over what is, for all intents and purposes, a war zone. While the average flier can't expect his economy class seat to come with anti-missile defenses, certainly consumers can demand enough sense to avoid knowingly dangerous airspace. Sadly, that was just the problem. Flight MH17 pilots did not and could not know that they were flying into danger. They had been assured otherwise.

"They [Flight MH17 pilots] were operating in airspace that was deemed safe by the authorities whose job it is to determine that," Smith said. Organizations such as the United Nation's International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and local governments set the standards for commercial airliners the world over. Pilots trust their counterparts on the ground to do their job and fly accordingly. Air traffic controllers in Ukraine itself would have told the crew it was safe to proceed.

The pilots trusted their ground crews, because that's how global air traffic works.

"They were one of many large carriers who were doing that [flying over eastern Ukraine]," Smith said. "It's not an airline's responsibility to send a liaison out to warzones and determine if that area is safe ... Now, in retrospect, maybe they [air traffic controllers] didn't make the correct decision. Maybe that airspace shouldn't have been open. [But] Russia and Ukraine were saying, 'Yes, this is safe,' and Eurocontrol, which is the airspace agency that controls all of Europe, they were saying, 'Yes, this is safe,' and that was their job. That wasn't Malaysia Airline's job."

If the rebels had opened fire 10 minutes later or earlier, Smith added, it could have been any other carrier in the sky.