A Catastrophically Insufficient Restriction.
This is the map and Notice to Airmen issued by Ukraine on July 14, hours after a Ukrainian military Antonov was downed by a guided surface-to-air missile as it flew near the border with Russia. Note Lines F and G of the text in the upper left corner and the shaded area in red.
The notice added 6,000 feet of altitude to the airspace closures in eastern Ukraine, which had previously been set from the ground to 26,000 feet. Thus, this notice forbid civilian traffic beneath 32,000 feet.
From a weapons perspective, this is a very curious decision, given that the class of guided missile implicated in the downing of the Antonov has ranges that can extend, depending on the variants, to altitudes above 70,000 feet.
Put bluntly, Ukraine’s restriction offered no protection to aircraft from a weapon newly in play in the conflict. It was, to use a crude example, akin to telling someone who is standing 10 feet from an angry drunk with a loaded pistol to move a few feet further away.
Actually, that example is not quite right, because transiting international aircraft over eastern Ukraine already flew over the separatist area at standard cruising altitudes higher than 26,000 and usually higher than 32,000 feet. To comply with the new restriction they did not have to change their behaviors with regard to altitude — at all. This is in spite of the fact that they were in chip-shot range for a class of missiles that had reportedly slipped out state hands, and had been recently fired. So this is more like telling the man already standing 10 feet away from the armed drunk that he should not get within 8 feet.
When MH17 took off from Amsterdam on July 17 with 298 souls aboard its crew followed an approved flight plan into this red shaded area. The flight’s route and the crew’s behaviors, according to the information publicly available so far, complied with the guidelines set by relevant authorities charged with ensuring aviation safety. But the steps these authorities had taken offered the plane and the people aboard no protection whatsoever against what happened next.
Why? One reason seems to be that the authorities and the aviation safety community did not take the obvious step of aligning the airspace restrictions with the range of antiaircraft weapons newly used in the war. Had that been done, one clear conclusion might have been that the only way to ensure civilian air traffic over the conflict area was safe from the missiles below would be to close the airspace completely and direct air carriers to plan routes around.
Civilian jetliners do not fly nearly as high as this class of weapon, have no defenses against them and cannot withstand their punch.
Given the capabilities of the weapons involved, and recently used (under circumstances that remained cloudy), there was no fully safe route overhead. The safeguards were not safeguards at all.