Understanding the risks of flying in unfriendly skies

For a closer look at the challenges on the ground at the site of the downed Malaysia Airlines plane in Eastern Ukraine, Judy Woodruff talks to Matt Frei of Independent Television News from Donetsk. Science correspondent Miles O’Brien joins in to discuss why the jetliner was on a flight path over a conflict zone.

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    We take a closer look at what it's like at the scene where the down with Matt Frei of Independent Television News. He just arrived in Donetsk. I spoke with him a short time ago.

    Matt Frei, you have just arrived in the area. What do you know of what is at the crash site now?


    Well, Judy, I spoke to an OSCE monitor from Canada just a few minutes ago who has just come back from the crash site, which is about an hour's drive from where I am now.

    And it's dark, by the way. There's a curfew on. People don't really drive in the dark in this part of the world these days because it's just too dangerous.

    What he told me was extraordinary, because he essentially described the biggest crime scene on the planet, one of the biggest crime scenes in aviation history, guarded by nothing more than a group of what he described as drunken hoodlums in uniform.

    These are pro-Russian rebels, all of them armed, most of them drunk or half-drunk, guarding this — this mass grave, which has been treated with some degree of respect, mainly by the locals, by minors who live in the area and their families. They have covered a lot of the bodies in blankets.

    They have tried to salvage some of the things that they think might be sensitive like passports and so on. But really they have also tried I think very hard not to contaminate the crime scene in any particular way.

    The other interesting thing is that this monitor said that when he arrived at the scene, they got a very hostile reception from the people guarding the grave. They weren't allowed in there at first. Then it took a little bit of negotiation. They did finally arrive.

    There were some reports of warning shots being fired in the air. The relationship between this group of monitors and the rebels has been extremely tense in the past. In fact, they are held and perhaps are still holding some of them captive, hostages, effectively.


    The European monitors, will they return to the crash site to again try to exert some control over it?


    The plan is to go back. The plan is for them to prepare the ground for others to come in.

    I mean, normally, when you have a crash like this — you know this, Judy — you have a human avalanche of experts, of forensic experts, of aviation experts, descending on the scene to secure the black box, to sift through the evidence, secure the crime scene. None of that's going to be possible until the political situation around the crash site — and I'm talking about the border area of Eastern Ukraine — has been sorted out.


    Matt Frei talking to us from Donetsk, thank you very much.


    Thank you.


    And let's zero in some of those concerns we just heard about the crash site itself, as well as questions about why the jetliner was on this flight path.

    NewsHour science correspondent Miles O'Brien, who is a pilot himself and a close observer of aviation matters, joins me now.

    Miles, first, on the crash site, how unusual is it to have a scene like this without any sort of official oversight, people who are watching it very carefully to make sure it's not disturbed?


    As best I can tell, Judy, what Matt just described is unprecedented, as well as being horrific.

    Imagine being a family member who had lost a loved one on that aircraft, knowing that the bodies are being treated with such terrible disrespect, never mind the investigation as to the cause.

    There should be a big strip of yellow crime scene tape all around this site and a preserved scene for investigators to come in and do their work, to document where the bodies are, and then just as quick as humanly possible treat them with the respect they deserve.

    And what we have is hoodlums who are around this scene and bodies that are decomposing. It is just horrific.


    It is horrific indeed.

    Miles, I want to ask you about the flight of this plane. Why was a passenger plane flying over a war zone, a place where militants had access to surface-to-air missiles?


    It's a simple answer, I think, Judy. It's just a commercial decision which trumped a commonsense safety decision.

    Now, the truth be told that technically this aircraft was flying in free airspace above the so-called lid of the war zone. Up to 32,000 feet was a no-fly zone. They were at 33,000 feet.

    But, as a pilot, I can tell you, I always like to have an out. And when you're flying with around 1,000 feet of margin, if you have something that requires you to descend rapidly, a decompression, an engine loss, or whatever, in short order, you're going to be right in the middle of a no-fly zone.

    Best-case scenario, you're going to end up having to land, do an emergency landing inside contested territory. So for a carrier to fly over these zones with such little margin for error raises a lot of questions which I'm sure these families would like to have answered.

    I have looked at the flight paths of some other airlines, and it wasn't just Malaysia that went through there on a routine basis. But if you look at Air France has done recently and what British Airways has done recently, they have scrupulously avoided Ukraine airspace for some time now. And that is the prudent thing to do.


    And, as I understand it, U.S. carriers have been avoiding this area as well.

    Who decides, who recommends, to air carriers what is safe, what isn't safe? How are those decisions made? Is it carrier by carrier?


    Well, ultimately, it's the responsibility of the carrier and really, ultimately, the captain to reject a flight plan.

    If a dispatcher gives them a flight plan over a war zone, it's up to that he captain to say, you know what? This doesn't feel safe to me. We should take a few extra minutes, and burn a little bit of extra fuel to go around.

    There are — the FAA had issued a flight prohibition zone. The European counterpart had done similar things. But each airline is responsible to their home country's regulatory agency. And, in this case, that's a patchwork and not everybody was paying as close attention to what was going on in the Ukraine. These carriers, however, need to fly safely.


    But just very quickly, Miles, we know there are number of places on the planet now where there are hot wars of one type or another going on.

    If you are an international passenger, how do you know the plane you're on is going to stay safe?


    That's a very good and difficult question. You don't know the flight plan when you get on that flight.

    And I think one thing you can do is look at past performance. Just looking at online and realizing that British Airways and Air France were avoiding Ukraine, that tells me something about how they run their airline.


    Miles O'Brien, we thank you.


    You're welcome.

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