Who decides an airplane’s route is too dangerous to fly? No one will say

It's not entirely clear who issues advisories to airlines about potential danger zones. Nicole Mortillaro, Global News

TORONTO – When it comes to deciding whether to fly over potentially dangerous airspace, it isn’t clear who makes the call.

When airlines share flight routes and take information – but not necessarily directives – from government and industry agencies, risk-based decision-making can be more complicated than it appears.

Transport Canada said in an email that it’s responsible for “assessing the security of civil aviation and is committed to ensuring the safety of passengers,” but added that “these are decisions that are taken by airlines themselves.”

The Transport Minister’s office did not return calls by deadline.

Air Canada wouldn’t say what its protocol is, instead responding to several calls from Global News via email and only commenting on the airline’s Tel Aviv flights, which resumed Thursday.

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“This decision is based on our own assessment of the situation and that of regulators, in consultation with others in the airline community,” wrote Isabelle Arthur, a media relations manager with the airline. “The safety of our passengers and crew is our first priority and we will continue to monitor developments very closely.”

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Asked about why a flight route – operated by Lufthansa but shared by Air Canada through Star Alliance – routinely flew over Ukraine until the loss of MH17,, Arthur wrote in a separate email, “Air Canada’s Corporate Security and Risk management department constantly monitors the level of security in every country and city we serve, including en route and local airspace, to ensure our crews and passengers aren’t put at risk. We work with government agencies in Canada, the U.S. and around the world, other airlines, and other sources at the destination city such as local airport authorities and law enforcement to gain a solid understanding of potential issues.”

(Earlier this week, Air Canada said that it had avoided that airspace for some time.)

But Air Canada wouldn’t say who those regulators are.

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It’s not the International Air Transport Association.

“Airlines, from their perspective, they fly routes, they fly planes and they rely on governments to alert them about unsafe airspace and the governments control the airspace over their country and through organizations which are basically government organizations like the [International Civil Aviation Organization],” said John Sinclair with the International Air Transport Association (IATA). “Really it’s not something that IATA does.”

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) refused to comment on the situation, directing Global News to press releases.

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In the United States, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) issued a special statement in a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) advisory, advising airlines not to fly to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport; on April 23, it issued one telling them not to fly over Ukraine.

“The FAA … might then look at unrestricted air and say, ‘Okay, it’s not restricted, but for x or y reason we recommend our carriers … not fly over that space,'” said Mona Aubin, a spokesperson from IATA’s Montreal office.

In Canada, it’s unclear as to whether Transport Canada does this.

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The Department of Foreign Affairs did not respond to a request from Global News.

WATCH: International flight path changes, Robin Stickley reports.

Just days after Flight MH17 was blown out of the sky, the Flight Safety Foundation, an independent non-profit organization that provides safety guidance and resources for the aviation and aerospace industry, asked ICAO to call for “a High-Level Ministerial meeting to review the systems in place to warn airlines of hostile airspace and take action in response to the shoot down of Malaysia Airlines 17 in the Ukraine, and for authorities to bring criminal prosecutions against those who brought down the aircraft and interfered with the investigation.

“Where known threats to civil aviation exist, States should assess and widely publish this information, or close the airspace. If States cannot discharge their responsibilities to manage their airspace safely, ICAO should play a leading role to alerting or prohibiting airlines from flying through known, hostile airspace,” president and CEO of FSF Jon Beatty said in the statement..

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Taking things into your own hands

While federal agencies and Canada’s international airlines both assure the public that they take its safety at heart, you may feel better finding out which routes your flight may take on your own.

Air Canada provides an interactive map of routes (as of July 25, the map still took the Delhi-Toronto route over Ukraine).

But to get more real-time data, sites such as Flightradar24, FlightAware or Planefinder are reliable sources as well (however, it’s important to note not all flights have technology needed to be  tracked on these sites).

Each site allows you to search by airline or flight number. Planefinder also allows you to track past routes.

Even after you look at past routes, though, a plane may slightly change a route due to weather or at the pilot’s discretion.

In the end, your safety seems to be in the hands of the airlines.

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