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U.S. bans airlines from flying near North Korea due to missile launches

PUBLISHED Thu, November 09, 2017 - 6:46pm EST
Map: North Korean airspace

The United States, citing the threat from North Korea's unannounced missile launches, has banned U.S. airlines from flying over a large part of the Sea of Japan. It comes just months after a missile came relatively close to an airliner with hundreds of people on board.

Most of North Korea's airspace - which is known as the Pyongyang Flight Information Region - was already off-limits to U.S. airlines, but the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) continued to allow flights over an area of the Sea of Japan, east of 132 degrees east longitude.

Several European and Asian airlines are known to use parts of North Korea's airspace, though it's unclear how many - if any - American airlines were passing through the eastern part over the Sea of Japan. The FAA said in a notice to airmen that the entire region is now off-limits to all U.S. air carriers.

"Due to the hazardous situation created by North Korean military capabilities and activities, including unannounced North Korean missile launches and air defense weapons systems, all flight operations in the Pyongyang Flight Information Region .. are prohibited," the notice said.

The move comes just weeks after Germany and France issued a similar ban for its airlines. In the case of an emergency, the pilot of an aircraft may ignore the ban and enter North Korean airspace if doing so is required for the safety of the flight.

A long-range missile fired by North Korea on July 28 came relatively close to Air France Flight 293, which was traveling from Tokyo to Paris with 323 people on board. The missile splashed down into the Sea of Japan less than 10 minutes after Flight 293 flew over the area, according to U.S. officials.

North Korea has in the past notified the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) about upcoming missile launches, but no such warnings have been issued over the past few years. And while the risk to an aircraft is relatively small, a direct hit could potentially cause a plane to crash.

A recent report from the Flight Service Bureau (FSB) noted that at least one of the missiles launched this year fell apart as it re-entered the Earth's atmosphere. "[This means] that a debris field of missile fragments passed through the airspace, not just one complete missile," the FSB said.

"Any fragment of reasonable size hitting a tailplane, wing, or engine as the aircraft is in cruise at 450 knots creates a significant risk of loss of control of the aircraft," the report said, adding that up to 100 fragments, and possibly more, may have fallen from the sky during this year's missile launches.

"The chances of a missile, or part of it, striking the aircraft are not as low as it may initially appear," the FSB added. "Given that all these re-entries are occurring in quite a focused area, prudence dictates considering avoiding the airspace."

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