After North Korea dropped an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on the location an Air France flight passed 10 minutes earlier, the airline appropriately expanded its no-fly zone over the rogue state.
This week, it was found North Korea exploded its largest hydrogen bomb. So Air France’s move looks to be a very wise one for airlines to take generally. Flight 293 was carrying 323 people en route to Paris from Tokyo. It does not take much thought to imagine the sheer terror of what may have occurred if the plane had been there 10 minutes later.
Air France had confirmed that the missile was “falling into the sea at more than 100 kilometres from the plane’s trajectory”. The company decided to expand the no-fly zone as a precautionary measure.
The phenomenon of no-fly zones over North Korea is a very interesting one. North Korean airspace consists of the air above its land but also beyond its borders to include part of the Sea of Japan. It also includes a small region above the Yellow Sea. The small Asian nation is a member of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). In April 1997, North Korea started to allow foreign airlines to fly through its airspace. Sometimes, North Korea has let ICAO know any of upcoming missile launches but this has not been the case recently.
Airlines are clearly reluctant to fly through the airspace because of the risk. Missile tests are conducted often without notice and there is the very possible danger of civilian airliners being shot down. If this occurs, it would no doubt spark a significant geopolitical crisis that would heighten the already thick tensions with North Korea. We believe it would do so much more than what the MH17 crisis did with Russia.
The United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has particular rules about flying over North Korean airspace. On April 18, 1997, the FAA issued Special Federal Aviation Regulation number 79 (SFAR 79), which said that “immediate action is necessary to prohibit certain flight operations within [North Korean] airspace.” The FAA were expressly concerned of civil aircraft being shot down by the North Korean air defence system. The FAA extended the ban to the entire Flight Information Region (FIR) of Pyongyang. This however changed in February 1998, when the FAA decided to allow flights in the eastern zone of the FIR.
SFAR 79 still applies to all U.S. aircraft. It bans U.S. air carriers or commercial operators from flying in the Pyongyang FIR west of 132 degrees east longitude. They can, however, fly into Pyongyang with approval from the U.S. Government or the FAA. This is usually performed in diplomatic, emergency or humanitarian missions.
Other international airliners are not as strict as the Americans. European airlines have used the airspace, including the regions banned by SFAR 79, for commercial purposes. Lufthansa, KLM and Finnair are some of them. In one video tracking air traffic over twenty-four hours, there is small amount of aircraft flying over the country. South Korea avoids the airspace at all costs. They intentionally fly in a strange so-called “dog-ear-style angular pattern” in order to avoid it.
Flights have avoided North Korean airspace for other reasons. Namely, the requirement to pay significant overflight fees. The United States owns a significant amount of airspace over the Pacific Ocean near North Korea. Overflight fees charged provide a significant amount of revenue for the Americans.
Australia does not appear to have any bans on flying over North Korean airspace. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, however, has a good advisory page about travel to North Korea. In short, it effectively says, “Reconsider your need to travel there”.