Geopolitics

MH17, Costs And Consequences Of Open Air Space

The Malaysian airliner wasn't the only one following the route over Ukraine, as detours can bring major time and fuel costs. When is it time to close air space?

Malaysia Airlines cabin crew at Kuala Lumper Airport
Malaysia Airlines cabin crew at Kuala Lumper Airport
Jens Flottau

MUNICH — On Thursday, soon after the first news of the disappearance of Flight MH17 hit, a curious image appeared on the flight website. This service enables people to follow live, rather like a flight controller, where a plane is in a specific region, its direction and its altitude. On Friday afternoon, the points on the screen started forming a large arc over the eastern part of Ukraine.

Some planes, like an Emirates flight from Dubai to Kiev, turned around and went back to the airport from which they’d taken off. By now no civil flights are flying through that area at all. The question many people are asking is why only now?

At the time the Malaysian flight is presumed to have been shot down, flight restrictions were already in place over Ukraine, but MH17 was in a part of air space open for civil aviation.

As early as April 3, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) prohibited U.S. airlines from flying over Crimean air space and adjacent regions in southeastern Ukraine. MH17, however, was hit by rockets far further north.

Last Monday, Ukrainian authorities themselves had ordered that flights over the region should avoid certain altitudes. They were no longer allowed to fly between 26,000 and 32,000 feet, or under a good 10-kilometer altitude. MH17 was flying at 33,000 feet, just 300 meters above the closed airspace.

The Ukrainians had assumed that planes flying at that height were no longer within range of small portable rockets, even if someone were to take aim at them. Apparently, they didn’t take into account that the separatists have access to large surface-to-air rockets mounted on heavy vehicles.

Who closes what airspace to whom in a fairly complicated business. As a rule, a country’s authorities are responsible for their own country’s airspace. But as we’ve seen, foreign aviation authorities can also order airlines from their area of supervision to avoid regions they consider dangerous. In those cases, however, it’s rare for there to be a real flying ban. Various types of restrictions are much more likely. They tend to be issued internationally as so-called “Notices to Airmen, or “Notams” for short.

The FAA also plays an international role in this: Although responsible for U.S. airlines only, other authorities tend to follow their recommendations — though not always, as FAA decisions can also be politically influenced.

The costs of detours

When the authority prohibited U.S. airlines from flying over Crimea, it was less about Washington fearing an attack such as that on MH17 and more about wanting to send a signal to Moscow.

Notams are released by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a specialized UN agency. They are generally valid for a maximum of three months. If they are not rescinded, then they automatically become standard.

Ukrainian air space is right on the path of major connections between Europe and Southeast Asia. Flying around it usually means significant additional fuel and other costs for airlines because this makes the routes significantly longer. For most airlines, fuel has become the single biggest cost.

The decision of Malaysia Airlines to use the airspace over Ukraine on Thursday was fully in line with international practice. Nearly all large Asian airlines and many European ones, including Lufthansa, hadn’t until then changed their routes significantly. Only Australia’s Qantas had made the decision to fly around the region.

The airlines now face a dilemma. It is in their interests to fly the cheapest route, but they do generally respect restrictions set by Notams or other means. The large carriers have their own departments that try to assess the security situations in various regions around the world. But these departments are often swamped, so the companies must also depend on local authorities.

As the case of Flight MH17 has shown, these can also be wrong – with fatal consequences.

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Green

In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.


It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park

Xinhua/ZUMA

Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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