Blogs & Comment

Commercial airlines negotiating the ethics of flying in, and over, conflict zones: Chris MacDonald

Ethical imperative is to err toward greater human safety

Ethiopia 787 Dreamliner

Tel Aviv is not a place for the faint of heart to fly into, these days. Should Canadian and American and European airlines go back to avoiding the place, or should they bravely continue flying there? The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians along the Gaza-Israel border is, tragically, showing no signs of letting up, and the result is real risk to commercial aircraft.

Back on July 22, Air Canada briefly cancelled flights betweenTel Aviv and Toronto, and in the US the Federal Aviation Administration issued an order banning U.S. carriers from flying in and out of Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport. The European Aviation Safety Agency, on the other hand, merely issued an advisory recommending caution.

Then, after a few days, the FAA lifted its ban on flights, but the trouble is far from over. There was news in late July that rockets had been fired at the Tel Aviv airport as an Air Canada jet was preparing to land. Flight AC85 was forced to abandon its initial attempt to land, and to circle the airport while waiting for confirmation that landing was (reasonably) safe. Reports suggest that the airline is nonetheless going to continue flying to Israel.

Is that the right thing to do? How much risk is too much? With regard to the company’s own calculations, a spokesman for American Airways was quoted as saying “Nothing matters more than keeping our crews and customers safe.” OK, fair enough. But how safe is “safe”? No one in the post-9/11 world thinks air travel is perfectly safe, although it is still in general the safest way to travel. But is flying into Tel Aviv sufficiently dangerous (beyond the minimal dangers of “normal” air travel) to make it unethical for airlines to fly there?

One way out would be for airlines to defer to the relevant federal regulations and edicts. But laws and regulations only sets the minimum standard. Airlines are free to opt not to fly into Tel Aviv, even when legally allowed to do so, so they still have a decision to make.

Some people will immediately say that yes, of course, airlines should avoid taking the risk. After all, every life is precious — you can’t put a price on a human life. Except, of course, you can, and we do it all the time. If every life was literally priceless, we would spend even more on air safety (not to mention auto safety) than we already do.

Another option would be to say, hey, it’s a matter of “buyer beware.” Airlines can fly into Tel Aviv, ethically, as long as their customers know how dangerous it is. And what passenger contemplating flying into Tel Aviv these days wouldn’t know about the dangers? But then, being aware of the conflict there doesn’t imply having a good understanding of the precise risk involved in flying there. Recall that just about everyone was surprised when a Malaysian passenger plane was shot down over the Ukraine back in July, killing nearly 300 people. Everyone knew about the armed conflict going on there, but no one apparently thought that it constituted a serious risk to air travel. So it is unrealistic to expect the average passenger — one without a fine appreciation of the precise geographical location of the latest round of skirmishes and not tutored in the capacities of the latest ground-to-air rocket technology — to make this call. Passengers rely on airlines to engage in reasoned risk assessment, and to keep them reasonably safe.

In the end, commercial airlines should err on the side of safety. After all, even if (let us suppose) all the passengers on a given flight into Tel Aviv are Israelis returning home, ones who are happy to thumb their noses at Palestinian rockets, the airlines still have a duty to their employees — in particular to the pilots and flight attendants who make up their flight crews. Those flight crews accept, as do passengers, that flying implies certain risks. But no one on the plane, whether passenger or pilot or flight attendant, has the information required to make a rational decision about flying into Tel Aviv, and so they shouldn’t be expected to do so.