Skip to main content

What's a pilot to do? Landing in a war zone

By Les Abend
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
A departure flight board displays various canceled and delayed flights in Ben Gurion International airport.
A departure flight board displays various canceled and delayed flights in Ben Gurion International airport.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Les Abend says a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
  • The FAA has lifted restrictions on landing and taking off in Tel Aviv
  • Worrying about whether rockets are flying near airports makes a tough task more difficult
  • U.S. airspace is also full of activity involving live ordinance, due to military training

Editor's note: Les Abend is a Boeing 777 captain for a major airline with 30 years of flying experience. He is also a CNN aviation analyst and senior contributor to Flying magazine. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Checking the weather display for our departure from JFK Airport in New York to London's Heathrow Airport, an awkward blob of green, yellow, and red is sprawled diagonally across most of the New England coastline. Studying the computer in Operations, the routing filed with ATC (air traffic control) appears to navigate through the least intense area of a very wide storm system. I pick up the company phone, taking a rare opportunity to consult with our dispatcher located in a central location at our main hub almost 1,400 miles away.

On most occasions, through our collaborative efforts, the dispatcher and I agree to the planning of the flight by electronic means. This day is different. On this day I require the verbal communication of a trusted professional who has more resources available to assist in our flight planning.

In light of the now-lifted FAA ban on flights into Israel's Ben Gurion Airport, it seems that the resources available will have to include intelligence on airborne hostile activity.

Les Abend
Les Abend

But let's be honest, why did the FAA exercise their authority in the first place? Israel has been the center of conflict since its birth in 1948, with the airport having been in existence even before that time. The answer for the FAA's decision had to lay in what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. I think we all get it.

So what? One rocket is launched from Gaza and lands within a mile of Ben Gurion Airport. Big deal. The Israelis said, "What's one missile when we have the Iron Dome? It's just another day in Tel Aviv for us. C'mon back."

Many flights soar over conflict zones

Well, one mile from the airport and one little ole rocket may not seem like much, but our arrivals to a runway begin at least 10 miles away. And our lumbering airliners are the most vulnerable in the approach phase, notwithstanding the initial takeoff phase of our flights. Airline pilots are paid to be paranoid. I've never flown with a colleague whom I considered too cautious.

That being said, U.S. airline pilots understand the concept of mitigating risk. Not everything we do as humans is completely safe. But Israel's El Al airplanes have a little more risk mitigation in their arena. The robust Israeli airline has missile detection and defense systems installed. Most of these systems are designed to automatically thwart an attack from shoulder-launched weapons and low altitude threats.

U.S. lifts ban on flights to Israel
Should Israeli flights remain cancelled?
Bloomberg: 'Devastating' to stop flights

A similar system was proposed a couple of years after 9/11 for U.S. airlines but the costs were deemed to outweigh the potential risk. My airline went so far as to have the test hardware installed in three of our Boeing 767s. The technology was designed to defend against MANPADs -- a weapon considered to be the next terrorist threat. A cause for concern was that once the system was installed, the potential existed for it to be defeated by newer weapon technology.

But now that it seems the FAA has set an arbitrary standard for safety of flights into areas of conflict what exactly is the criteria? How can yesterday be unsafe but today is all clear? Should missile launch frequency and distance from the airport be calculated via an algorithm? Should the type of warhead be considered? If there is to be a standard, the requirement to have it disseminated for airlines and their flight crews is a must.

The Israelis have obviously set their own standards. I can't think of an area on the globe that is more focused on security than Tel Aviv. In that regard, should the criteria to halt flights be different for Ben Gurion Airport than it is for Cairo International Airport?

Because of our military, U.S. airspace is full of activity involving more live ordnance than anywhere in the world. Airspace that is off-limits to civilian flights dot the entire country. Our military is practicing war tactics in these areas both on the ground and in the air. One does not stray into restricted airspace that is "hot" without authorization from ATC even if it is required for a weather deviation.

A tense week for air travelers

I can guarantee that until the horror of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, the furthest concept from an airline pilot's mind when it came to threats was a missile attack — and certainly not a missile attack at cruise altitude.

But if this is a new day, then airlines and their pilots need to be provided with the tools to make safe routing decisions around areas of conflict.

These tools will have to include appropriate intelligence. If airline pilots can be trusted with intelligence information after 9/11 but still can't take gels and liquids through airport security, something has to change.

And now, as crazy as it seems, in 30 years of flying for my airline, my dispatcher and I have to incorporate missile threats into pre-flight planning.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT