Missiles fired into the Sea of Japan by North Korea are a threat to commercial aviation, according to Flight Service Bureau OpsGroup which is warning its clients to consider re-routing flights to avoid the possibility of getting hit.
In a memo to clients, mostly private and business jet operators, the OpsGroup reported that planes flying over the Sea of Japan could be at risk of colliding with a missile or one of the unknown number of fragments as it breaks up, as one test missile did on July 28th.
"Any fragment of reasonable size hitting a tailplane, wing, or engine at 500 knots creates a significant risk of loss of control of the aircraft," the advisory says.
The warning was published in August, after an Air France crew reported seeing a test firing. But this most recent North Korean missile on November 29 was witnessed by the crews of three airliners, another Air France flight, Korean Air and Cathay Pacific Flight 893 en route to Hong Kong from San Francisco. Several other airliners were flying in the area but did not report seeing the missile. The South China Morning Post said the Cathay crew reported, “Be advised, we witnessed the DPRK missile blow up and fall apart near our current location.”
Julie Jarrett, a spokeswoman for Cathay said the airline had been in touch with authorities and other carriers but “At the moment, no one is changing any routes or operating parameters.”
Meeting with reporters in Geneva this week, the International Air Transport Association which represents airlines worldwide insisted, as it has in the past, that assuring the safety of airspace and notifying airlines of risks is the responsibility of governments.
In 2015, North Korea stopped issuing notifications about its test firings and international organizations have been trying to change that, according to Nick Careen, an IATA executive in charge of security among other things. "ICAO (the International Civil Aviation Organization) and the UN continue to try" to push for North Korea to issue alerts prior to a launch, he said.
The airline industry was criticized in July 2014 when Malaysia Flight 17 was shot down while flying over a conflict zone in the Ukraine and all 298 on board were killed. In that instance, airlines had advance warning that missiles were being fired below 32 thousand feet, MH-17 was flying at 33 thousand feet. It wasn't until after the catastrophe that many airlines began rerouting their flights entirely.
“Each individual airline utilizes the information to properly risk assess their flight paths," Careen said, based on information provided to them. The frustration has been in getting information when governments often do not share it.
In an interview on CNN, one aviation specialist suggested that the risks for airliners from North Korea-launched missiles was "billions to one." Mark Zee, of OpsGroup told his clients the odds are not so favorable for safety for two reasons. The number of missile firings increased from 2015 with 15 to 24 in 2016. There have been 18 this year - the first year of the testing of long-range missiles capable of hitting the United States.
Additionally, the area into which the missiles are being launched has moved east, outside of the North Korean airspace that airlines avoid and into the Japanese airspace regularly transited by the world's carriers.
Once again, airlines are looking at North Korea and making their own risk/benefit analysis. Flight crews and passengers with plans to travel in that region are left to ask themselves, "Am I feeling lucky?"