air crashes

Nov 3, 2015

Closures of Sinai airspace have broader implications, including for Qantas

Germany has now told its airlines to avoid all Sinai airspace and Egypt has closed the area near the scene of the crash of a Russian holiday charter Metrojet flight on Saturday that

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

The tail of the crashed Metrojet A321

Germany has now told its airlines to avoid all Sinai airspace and Egypt has closed the area near the scene of the crash of a Russian holiday charter Metrojet flight on Saturday that killed all 224 people on board.

Qantas is understood to be reviewing its options should all its Middle East air routes between Dubai and London be closed, although such a risk to its operations appears very low at the moment.

The Sinai airspace closures block Qantas’s seldom used alternative route to London via Egyptian airspace. Its twice daily rotations between Dubai and London flown by A380s usually fly through Iranian airspace to avoid Iraq and Syria.

Fears that a ground based terrorist missile struck Metrojet flight 9268 about 23 minutes after it took off from Sharm el-Sheikh for St Petersburg have gained momentum, although there is no convincing publicly disclosed evidence that this is the cause of the disaster.

This is the context. A warning to airlines overflying Sinai which specifically detailed missiles in the area in the possession of terrorists was issued a year ago, and ignored.  That warning said it was unsafe to fly over the peninsula at lower than 26,000 feet.

The inadequacy of altitude limits over disputed territory in which missiles are present was highlighted by the Dutch Safety Board report of 13 October into the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine on 17 July 2014 killing all 298 people on board.

Germany’s warnings affect the entire Sinai while Egypt has posted a notice that prohibits using a navigational waypoint not far from the crash scene and which is commonly used for some approaches to Cairo.

These developments coincide with the company that operated the Metrojet branded flight giving a press conference in which it said 9268 had to have been brought down by an ‘external force’. However industry observers have pointed out that a massive and disruptive mechanical failure could also have caused the sudden upset that hit the flight at just under 31,000 feet, as reported earlier.

For further context, Russian safety authorities were quick to open a criminal inquiry into the crash and mentioned mechanical concerns in the narrative that accompanied that announcement.

Relations between the operator and Russian authorities have seemed prickly at times, with Metrojet insisting that its other flights would continue as normal. (It is unclear whether they did.)

The speed with which Middle East carriers including Qantas route partner Emirates ended their Sinai overflights was notable. Flights can however travel through Egyptian airspace to other destinations by following large detours.

Should future events render the northern routes across Iran unsafe Qantas and dozens of other airlines would have to consider routing services between SE Asia and Europe across Russian airspace. Organising approvals for flight plans that would involve such transits and alternative diversion airports in China and Siberia could take considerable time. One of the options for Qantas would be to fly to London via Vancouver.

Qantas was contacted about the potential air route issues yesterday, and confirmed that Sinai overflights were a little used alternative to the flight paths across Iran.

In general, the risk of closure of Iran airspace is considered low, and while the safety notices concerning Sinai airspace involve a risk that was posted but disregarded a year ago, there is no proof that Metrojet 9268 was brought down by a missile.

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10 thoughts on “Closures of Sinai airspace have broader implications, including for Qantas

  1. ghostwhowalksnz

    Reports are saying that ISIL hasnt claimed it used a missile, only that it ‘destroyed’ the aircraft.

  2. Ben Sandilands

    Not true. Assuming all of the reports attributed to ISIL are correct, ISIL front men have claimed that it shot down the flight and even offered a somewhat unconvincing video of this supposedly happening.

    However a bomb has to be a possibility, as would prior damage to the fuselage leading to a repair failure following an earlier tail strike. Note that the tail came down quite close to the main debris, which is closer than might be expected from a bomb or fail area failure at high altitude.

  3. comet

    Australia has been bombing Islamic State.

    As Qantas is Australia’s flag carrier and Australia’s most well-known corporate icon, it could be presumed that it is also a high risk target, just like the Russian carrier was.

  4. Blackstone

    The Iranian route has only recently been available (i.e. after MH17) due to the UN Security Council Resolutions AND the additional Australian autonomous sanctions it imposed which prevented Australian companies from making payments to Iranian state financial institutions IMO the Iranian route will remain open only whilst progress is being made on an agreement of the Iranian nuclear programme.

    the lack of apparent proactive risk assessments by some airlines that should know better is alarming

  5. Aero Eng Aviator

    Looking at the aerial videos on the RT website, the fin and aft end and the main wreckage never appeared in the same image. It looked to me like they were well separated.

    How far away was the fin and fuselage back end from the main wreckage of the wings and forward fuselage?

  6. ghostwhowalksnz

    Aero Eng there is a good view of that if you use google maps and go to ‘Sinai’.
    In the side bar, someone ( RIA Novosti, the russian news agency) has taken the various aerial images of the different wreckage sites and linked those to the actual normal views ( with some lat /long coords).

  7. Aero Eng Aviator

    ghostwhowalksnz, thanks. I didn’t get the sidebar you mentioned with google maps. However I got the information from avherald, who probably got it from your source. The fin and aft fuselage were about 2.25 km south of the wing/fwd fuselage and south of the last radar position. so looks like that came off first for whatever reason. The photos of the fin/aft fuselage show a clean lateral break at a frame at the top indicating that is where the fracture started and the complicated rupture at the bottom being the final departure from the rest of the aircraft as the back end bent off downwards. That would indicate the failure was due to an excessive download on the horizontal stabiliser or a fatigue failure at the fuselage top adjacent the frame and then pressurisation blew the back end off. Either way the rest of the aircraft would have been pushed forward with an impulsive thrust of a few thousand pounds as the pressurised air released out the back like a rocket exhaust.
    A few years back a famous airline near you reportedly had a major lateral crack some 60 inches in length, in a roof skin the same area on a 747 if I remember correctly. In that case the crack was discovered luckily during a maintenance check before a catastrophic failure occurred. The crack was supposedly initiated by scoring from the use of metal tool instead of a soft plastic one to dig out sealant from a skin butt joint to enable a NDT examination at contracted maintenance organisation.

  8. Dan Dair

    (in big letters, because it’s still a long way from a fact),

    the Metrojet flight was actually brought down by a missile,
    will it bugger-up flights to Europe through Dubai,?

  9. ken svay

    Structural failure is my bet, something the russians will not want to admit. Action by ISIL or ISIS or DAESH or whatever they are called this week suits the agenda much more.

  10. Andrew

    Hi there,
    I live in Egypt so I thought a couple of points re ISIS capability in Sinai might be helpful.
    1) ISIS are only known to have access to MANPADS, whose range is much less than 30,000ft. There’s no evidence they have SAM or BUK missiles.
    2) The only aircraft ISIS have attacked before now is an Egyptian army helicopter in Jan 2014, which was well within MANPAD range.
    3) ISIS claims of responsibility have come from ISIS affiliated groups outside of Egypt, not the “Sinai Province” branch that actually operates in Sinai.
    4) ISIS is mostly active in the North Sinai region near Al Arish, Rafah and Sheikh Zayed cities. They have attacked areas outside here (Taba, Cairo, El Tor) but N Sinai is their operational base.

    Of course we need to wait for the findings from the investigation, but I wouldn’t be panicking about long term flight paths yet.

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