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This September I will have a flight from Qatar (Doha) to Japan (Haneda) with Qatar Airways on the very new route code QR810. By checking its flight route I've noticed that it flies over south Iran, south Afghanistan and north Pakistan for at least 1/3 of the flight time. I know that the war is over in Afghanistan and things are better now in Iran and Pakistan, but I'm still worried about having a flight over their territory.

Is it safe to fly over countries considered dangerous zones?

map of flight path

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You might be more at risk flying over volcanic territories than this :p –  karancan Jun 18 at 12:30
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Your flight will be going at 10-11 km high at the speed of 800-900 km/h - you'll need some serious surface-to-air weaponry to even attempt to target a plane in those circumstances. –  Aleks G Jun 18 at 12:38
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It's natural to feel nervous, but you understand the airline has people whose job it is to worry about this, and who are as aware of current events as the rest of us, right? It's not like they can't look at a map too. –  Kate Gregory Jun 18 at 12:42
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None of the answers so far have mentioned the fact that some governments (including western democracies) have shot down civilian aircraft. –  Andrew Grimm Jun 19 at 1:55
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After MH17 incident, it seems Diogo concern is right. We still don't know who fired surface to air missile or air to air missile but still shooting down commercial airlines plane, flying over +32000ft, is possible. :( RIP who were in MH17. –  Mithun Jul 17 at 18:50
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5 Answers 5

up vote 27 down vote accepted

Pretty darn safe. Most terrorism or problems in those countries is on the ground. Yes some people might have SAMs (surface to air missiles) but the odds of them even seeing you at 800km/hr+ and 33000ft+ and hitting getting you is not worth considering. They wouldn't waste their weaponry trying.

When a place is considered too dangerous to fly, there are several people who might stop this - the airline themselves, the pilots (if they see something) and even international bodies or countries. All have considered it and feel it's safe for you to fly there.

Consider this flight and others fly over these countries every day, and there aren't even reports of near misses or attempts. You're so high up it's not even a consideration. Enjoy your flight, and the view.

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It's worth adding that the type of type of SAM most likely to end up in terrorist hands, MANPADs are intended to engage targets at low altitudes; most if not all of them are unable to fly high enough to engage a commercial air liner. SAMs capable of engaging an airliner at cruising altitude are much larger, typically requiring a dedicated launch vehicle (or vehicles), are much harder to steal/smuggle/etc, and in general require trained operators to setup and use. They're not idiot friendly systems. –  Dan Neely Jun 18 at 15:23
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@DanNeely: Terrorists are certainly not idiots. They may have different values that you or me, but they are not less smart and often more cunning. Many of them have military training and access to military equipment, including heavy equipment if they want it bad enough. The ISIL organization upgraded from Kalachnikovs to anti-aircraft weaponry just this week when the Iraqi security forces fled their posts. –  dotancohen Jun 19 at 5:57
    
Note that I do agree that the Qatar flight is safe, I am only dispelling the notion that a "not idiot friendly system" means that it cannot be used by a terrorist, or that they cannot get their hands on such equipment. –  dotancohen Jun 19 at 5:58
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Though this just happened: "An advisor to the Ukrainian interior minister, Anton Gerashenko, says the plane was flying at an altitude of 10,000 metres (33,000 feet) when it was "hit by a missile fired from a Buk launcher", in a post on his Facebook page, according to the Associated Press." bbc.co.uk/news/world-28354787 –  OrangeDog Jul 17 at 16:01
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@OrangeDog: Mark's answer mentions terrorism. The plane over Ukraine was almost certainly shot down by the Russians, possibly masquerading as Ukrainian separatists. As Dan noted, this kind of heavy SAM's is owned and operated by governments. –  MSalters Jul 17 at 16:13
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I have flown into Kabul on a passenger jet, in 2008. The protocol is very simple - the pilot isn't concerned for several reasons:

  1. If you are landing, as I was, you are going to be landing at night, because that's when they schedule them.
  2. Until they descend below 20,000 feet, you are out of the range of a SAM. Typically, they need to be within 4 miles of their target so at any sort of cruising height, you are safe.
  3. In reality, there isn't an easy way to detect what aircraft you are hitting at, and as such, little incentive for taking any random aircraft out.

I say all of this to say - this was for landing in Kabul, and nobody worried. Grant you, when we landed, we had to turn off all lights and close the windows, making us invisible - but if you are just on your way, you are totally safe.

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In your particular example, there are a number of international organizations in that area, like the Arab League, the CCASG and the OPEC, which have the UAE as a member. Even if Iran would suddenly start to become as aggresive as North Korea and threaten to shoot down aircraft entering their region, the political and economical repercussions of actually doing so would be extremely severe. They would face embargos, cancellations of trade treaties, heavy sanctions and worldwide punishments. It might even be seen as an act of war, which might start an actual war involving the Arab League.

The threat of an attack from afghanistan is not as likely. Most of the Afghan terrorist weaponry dates back to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and involves shoulder weaponry with shorter range and outdated launcher platforms. The missiles themselves often don't have an operational range long enough to attack an aircraft flying at 40,000 feet at 900 km/h.

Pakistan's government has been stable for a while and even though diplomatic relations have deteriorated somewhat after the death of Bin Laden, the pakistani government would not take kindly to terrorists taking down a plane from their soil, let alone that they would take one down themselves.

In all cases, any attack originating from the ground of one of those states would have severe international repercussions and can easily lead to political, economical and possibly military action towards that state. Even if it's an action from a splinter group located in that country, it could still lead to military intervention, like happened in Afghanistan after the attacks of 9/11 by Al Qaeda. There are not many splinter groups who would commit such an act of terror with such a prospect.

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Otherwise +1, but the Pakistani government wasn't able to stop the Taliban from killing 36 people at Karachi Airport a few weeks ago. Still a much easier target than an airplane flying at 11 km though. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2014_Jinnah_International_Airport_attack –  jpatokal Jun 18 at 15:45
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If the Iranian government decided to ban overflights in advance, they could do so and people would just have to respect it. But they'd be losing the fees they can otherwise charge for them. If they decided to force down an aircraft after previously giving it permission to overfly, that would probably cause a serious international incident. –  Ganesh Sittampalam Jun 18 at 20:29
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I don't think there's any problem with this at all. Iran and Pakistan are not currently at war with anyone, the security situation is quite safe in both, and commercial airlines service those countries daily.

Afghanistan has been in an effective state of civil war since the departure of US forces, with a weak central government. However, it's unlikely any force would attempt to shoot down a random airliner since there is nothing to be gained and it would be a waste of expensive weaponry. Your main concern is your security on the ground should the aircraft need to make an unscheduled landing due to mechanical issues, but that happens relatively rarely and your aircraft can probably keep flying on to Pakistan or China before setting down.

South Korea hosts a large number of US combatants, but is nevertheless safe to fly over.

Enjoy your trip!

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As far as overflying unstable primitive tribal lands like Afghanistan and Pakistan goes, the only worry I'd have is a major mechanical malfunction (not a shoot-down) forcing an airliner to land somewhere in those lands, and being taken hostage. Considering the lack of suitable runways and ATC, it's unlikely that you'd end up surviving the landing anyway. It's more likely that your airliner could glide into a major city with a real airport, where you probably would not be attacked. So, either enjoy your flight, or rebook to a flight that doesn't overfly these areas if you're that nervous about it.

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It is a Boing 787 flight... probably it wont have such problems(I hope). –  Diogo Jun 18 at 17:04
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787? Shouldn't be making inflammatory comments then. –  Spehro Pefhany Jun 18 at 20:02
    
@SpehroPefhany "Inflammatory," 787, I see what you did there :D –  TypeIA Jun 18 at 20:45
    
I'm shocked, shocked, that you would make such charges. –  Phil Perry Jun 18 at 23:40
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