A Passenger Jet and a North Korean Missile Crossed Paths, Just Minutes Apart

Aug 2, 2017

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Update 08/04/2017: Following North Korea’s missile test last week that occurred directly in the path of Air France Flight 293, Air France-KLM has expanded its no-fly zone above the country, according to Reuters. The airline flies nonstop from its hub in Paris (CDG) to both Tokyo (HND and NRT) and Osaka (KIX), and those flights could see an increase in flying time anywhere from 10 – 30 minutes each, depending on direction.

Last Friday, North Korea had a second go at firing an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) it claims is capable of reaching the continental United States. While the test appeared to be unsuccessful, having failed in the last few critical seconds, it was not uneventful.

According to ABC News, the failed North Korean missile landed 93 miles northwest of Okushiri Island, right in the path of Air France Flight 293, which thankfully had flown past five to ten minutes earlier. The Boeing 777-300ER, with 323 passengers onboard, was just an hour into its flight from Tokyo to Paris, and 60 to 70 miles north of where the missile splashed into the sea.


In a statement to ABC News, Air France said North Korea’s missile test zones “don’t interfere in any way with Air France’s flight paths,” and that Flight 293 was operated “without any reported incident.”

“Moreover, in cooperation with the authorities, Air France constantly analyzes potentially dangerous flyover zones and adapts its flight plans accordingly,” the statement continued.

Still, based on tracking data from FlightAware, it appears that Air France has made a minor adjustment to its usual flight route, choosing to deviate farther west (shown above) in the days after the incident. What’s unclear is if this change is weather-related or in response to the situation.

This near-miss is an eerie reminder of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, brought down by a surface-to-air missile over Donetsk, Ukraine. While the shooting down of the Malaysian Boeing 777 may have been an unfortunate accident — the missile may have been possibly intended for another aircraft — these two incidents raise a bigger question: Are passenger jets at risk from getting hit by missiles mid-air?

A picture shows a piece of debris of the fuselage at the crash site of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 near the village of Hrabove (Grabovo), some 80km east of Donetsk, on July 25, 2014. Image courtesy of Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images.
A picture shows a piece of debris of the fuselage at the crash site of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 near the village of Hrabove (Grabovo), some 80km east of Donetsk, on July 25, 2014. Image courtesy of Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images.

In short, the answer is no. Speaking to CNN, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said that “responsible nations” typically give notice before conducting missile tests so as not to endanger aircraft and ships in the area. To that end, Davis noted that the US Army issued a press release before its tactical missile system test (ATACMS exercise) with the Republic of Korea on Friday night, unlike “irresponsible nations (who) fire these things off without putting out notice.”

This is also in line with the guidelines issued by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which states that countries have the “responsibility to issue risk advisories regarding any threats to the safety of civilian aircraft operating in their airspace.”

Worryingly, North Korea has been disregarding such international conventions, and has repeatedly failed to issue the required notices when conducting missile launches. “This missile flew through busy airspace used by commercial airliners,” added Davis after North Korea’s first ICBM test on July 4. “It flew into space. It landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone, and an area that’s used by commercial and fishing vessels. All of this completely uncoordinated.”

Yet there’s little that can actually be done. One definitive way to mitigate such risks is for airlines to avoid their usual flight paths, although this may be unfeasible due to higher costs and the potential need to renegotiate for additional air rights. While the odds of a mid-air collision are actually pretty low, airlines operating in hostile regions or areas with heightened military activity may have to pay extra attention to military and intelligence reports to prevent a possible tragedy.

Featured image courtesy of STR via Getty Images.

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