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Who Had Authority to Ban Air Travel Over Ukraine?

Aviation experts say each country decides whether to close airspace over its own territory.
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Question: Which international bodies are in charge of declaring an area off-limits to commercial passenger planes?

Answer: None.

Aviation experts say each country decides whether to close airspace over its own territory. And government agencies that regulate their own airlines, such as the FAA, can declare areas off-limits, too. But there is no international body that closes air routes for all the world's airlines.

Some international bodies do issue warnings, urging airlines to avoid certain areas. But they are advisory, not mandatory. They're similar to the State Department's travel warnings, which advise U.S. citizens to avoid certain trouble spots but do not ban travel to those areas.

Three months ago, a U.N. agency, the International Civil Aviation Organization, known as ICAO, issued a warning about flying over the Crimean region. That was based on the concern that both Russia and Ukraine were simultaneously claiming to control air traffic over that area, raising the possibility that planes could get conflicting instructions. But, says a spokesman, "ICAO does not open or close routes. We do not have an operational role."

Around the same time, in late April, the Federal Aviation Administration banned the U.S. airlines under its authority from flying over southern Ukraine. It noted the potential for air traffic control confusion, but it also added this prescient warning: "Political and military tension between Ukraine and the Russian Federation remains high, and compliance with air traffic control instructions issued by the authorities of one country could result in a civil aircraft being misidentified as a threat and intercepted or otherwise engaged by air defense forces of the other country."

The FAA's notice, however, did not cover the airspace in which the Malaysian plane was operating. Late Thursday, the FAA expanded the no-fly area for U.S. airlines to include eastern Ukraine "due to recent events and the potential for continued hazardous activities."

Once a country closes off airspace over its own territory, international authorities will not approve flight plans for routes over those areas. Accordingly, an organization called Eurocontrol says it is now rejecting any flight plans over Eastern Ukraine.

Malaysia Airlines said Friday that the flight plan for MH17 had been approved by Eurocontrol. The airline described the route as one commonly used for flights from Europe to Asia. "A flight from a different carrier was on the same route at the time of the MH17 incident, as were a number of other flights from other carriers in the days and weeks before," Malaysia Airlines said.

So who had the authority to declare the airspace over Eastern Ukraine off limits? Aviation experts say the answer is: Ukraine.