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
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1326 GMT (2126 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 2209 GMT (0609 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1802 GMT (0202 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1900 GMT (0300 HKT)
John Sutter says the right is often stereotyped on climate change. But with 97% of climate scientists say humans are causing global warming, we all have to get together on this.
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
Andrew Liepman and Philip Mudd: When we declare that we will defeat ISIS, what do we exactly mean?
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 2040 GMT (0440 HKT)
Thailand sex trafficking
Human trafficking is a multibillion dollar global industry. To beat it, we need to change mindsets, Cindy McCain says.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
The leaders of the GOP conferences say a Republican-led Senate could help solve America's problems.
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1401 GMT (2201 HKT)
Nicholas Syrett says Wesleyan University's decision to make fraternities admit women will help curb rape culture.
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Mike Downey says New Yorkers may be overdoing it, but baseball will really miss Derek Jeter
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1232 GMT (2032 HKT)
Quick: Which U.S. president has authorized wars of various kinds in seven Muslim countries?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Women's issues should be considered front and center when assessing a society's path, says Zainab Salbi
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 1805 GMT (0205 HKT)
A catastrophe not making headlines like Ebola and ISIS: the astounding rate of child poverty in the world's richest country.
ADVERTISEMENT