Flight tracking services have revealed a “conga line” of planes travelling over Turkey — and there is a dark reason for the curious phenomenon.
Leading flight tracker FlightRadar24 shared on Wednesday a real-time illustration of close to 50 planes, seemingly travelling nose-to-top as they crowded the Turkish airspace.
Nearby Syria was empty, while just a handful of planes flew over northern Iraq.
“Conga line over Turkey…” the flight tracker wrote of the planes.
The exceptionally crowded airspace is due to the planes, which came from a mix of carriers, skirting around war-torn Ukraine — where there are serious fears a civilian flight could be shot down.
Nearby Russia is, naturally, also off-limits after Western carriers were barred from using that airspace in the early days of the war.
“For those wondering why this area is so busy, flights travelling from Europe to the Middle East or Southeast Asia would ideally pass over Ukraine,” FlightRadar24 wrote.
“Take for example the Great Circle route between Luxembourg and Singapore (white) vs flight plan for CV4102,” it added, sharing a second image of the dramatic detour now forced upon carriers.
A battle over airspace
Much of the diversion is caused by a ban on civilian flights from travelling over Ukraine airspace due to safety concerns.
Ukraineclosed its airspace to civilian flights on the first day of the invasion, citing a high risk to flight safety. Moldova, too, closed its airspace, as did parts of Belarus.
The European Union Aviation Safety Agency said at the time the danger that a civilian flight became caught in conflict was too severe.
“There is a risk of both intentional targeting and misidentification of civil aircraft,” the regulator said in a statement.
“The presence and possible use of a wide range of ground and airborne warfare systems poses a high risk for civil flights operating at all altitudes and flight levels.”
The US Federal Aviation Administration similarly released a notice covering “the entire country of Ukraine, the entire country of Belarus and a western portion of Russia.”
Meanwhile, Russian airspace is closed to most Western allied carriers, causing the cluster over Turkey to the south.
The European Union closed its airspace to Russian airlines, Russian-owned and Russian-operated aircraft in the early days of the war as part of a broader slew of sanctions.
Russia predictably retaliated, closing its own airspace to most carriers and causing serious crowding along routes that have remained open.
Some routes have been cancelled indefinitely due to the upheaval, while Virgin Atlantic blamed Russia’s airspace ban for its decision to close operations in Hong Kong.
Avoiding a repeat of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17
Few examples illustrate the dangers of flying over conflict zones more blatantly than the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 over Ukraine.
The passenger plane, which was travelling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was downed in 2014 in the midst of vicious conflict between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists in the Donbass region, where war rages once again.
All 289 people on board were killed, including 27 Australians.
The missile used to take down the flight was later traced back to Russia, which continues to deny responsibility.
Two Russian nationals and a pro-Russia Ukrainian were found guilty of murder over the tragedy, and sentenced to life in prison — though all three, including prominent war commentator Igor Girkin, remain on the run.
China’s ‘unfair advantage’
Earlier this month, airline bosses complained that the lengthy detours meant Chinese carriers, which are still allowed to fly over Russia, would have an advantage.
“If you’ve got a Chinese plane that is flying over Russia, they’ve got an unfair advantage over us,” Air France CEO Ben Smith told the Financial Times.
The detour required for a plane travelling from Paris to Seoul added three hours to the flight, Mr Smith said — meaning extra cost and extra hassle for passengers.
Some airlines have already given up on the measures.
Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong’s flagship airline, faltered in November, resuming using Russian airspace after nine months of war.
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