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Missile tests threaten commercial aviation, U.S. says

Tillerson raises concerns over North Korean tests’ potential impact on air travel
Tillerson raises concerns over North Korean tests’ potential impact on air travel | Chuck Chiang

Peninsula tensions could pose serious threats to security and economic stability in the region even if the situation doesn’t deteriorate into open conflict, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned at a high-level summit in Vancouver January 16.

One of the key risks, Tillerson noted, was North Korea’s ongoing ballistic missile tests, many of which have now been conducted over international airspace at an altitude that could threaten the safety of commercial aircraft in the region. To highlight the point, Tillerson spoke in front of a snapshot of the air traffic map over Northeast Asian skies on the morning of January 12, 2017, covered almost completely with hundreds of flights travelling through the region at that time.

Tillerson warned the missiles could not only harm human lives, but also severely disrupt the region’s commercial flight network – a crucial link in global trade. He further criticized North Korea’s contention that U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises were just as aggressive as Pyongyang’s missile tests.

“This is to make a point of the equivalency of defence and military exercises, and their irresponsible testing,” Tillerson said of the visual aid. “As you can see, there’s a lot of activity in the skies each day. The potential of a North Korean missile, or parts of it, to affect civilian aircraft is real.”

North Korea made three ballistic missile tests last year, and the latest, on November 28, was observed by flight crews on a Cathay Pacific flight from San Francisco to Hong Kong, travelling off the east coast of Japan at the time of the incident. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration said the plane was only 280 nautical miles from the missile’s point of impact, and that nine other passenger planes were in the vicinity at that moment.

Further, Tillerson said, U.S. flight officials estimated that 716 commercial flights passed within that same area on that day, with a total of 152,110 available seats on those flights.

“That’s a lot of people from a lot of countries being put at risk by irresponsible testing of ballistic missiles. My point is this: North Korea’s willingness to launch missiles at any time presents a threat to people of all nationalities in the region’s airspace each day. Based on this past recklessness, we cannot expect North Korea to have any regard of what might get in the way of one of its missiles, or part of a missile breaking apart.”

Vancouver has direct flights to several major airports in the region, including Seoul’s Incheon, Tokyo’s Narita and Haneda and Osaka’s Kansai airports. In addition, Japanese airspace contains one of the major routes taken by almost all cross-Pacific flights from the Pacific Northwest to Asian destinations as far south as Manila. (The other popular route is part of Russian and Chinese airspace, northwest of the Korean Peninsula.)

Several analysts say Vancouver’s large number of direct flight connections to Asia is a key strength in the province’s close economic relationship with Asian markets.

China, Japan and South Korea make up three of B.C.’s top four trade markets (the United States sits at first place), with China alone accounting for $6.2 billion – or 18.4% – of the province’s commodity exports.

And while most airlines and other aviation industry officials have downplayed the possibility of an incident, citing astronomical odds against a missile colliding with a plane, worries about flying are already palpable among travellers in South Korea and Japan, the two closest neighbours of North Korea potentially in the line of fire.

“It is true that people [in South Korea] are more concerned, because previous tests by North Korea had been either underground or within their domestic airspace,” said Kang Dong-cheol, a journalist covering the Vancouver summit on North Korea for South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo. “Now, the missiles are travelling at a high altitude over the East Sea [the official Korean term for the Sea of Japan], so it’s true people are more worried than ever before.”

Ryohei Takagi, New York-based correspondent for Japanese wire service Kyodo, said while Japanese citizens are not changing travel plans for flights now, that is largely for the same reason their concerns are rising: there’s no telling when and where the next North Korean missile test over Japan will take place.

“We cannot expect which way the missiles will come from, so it’s impossible to prepare,” Takagi said. “If we know where they will test the missiles, then it may be different. But there’s no way to tell right now, so people are fearful.”

Kang agreed that people in South Korea are not changing travel plans for the most part, given that the country has lived under constant threat from Pyongyang for decades.

“While they are concerned, people keep living their lives.”

Seth Kaplan, managing partner of Airline Weekly and an industry observer, said while travellers are undoubtedly worried, the impact of a potential missile threat on passenger counts is not as high as that of an the outbreak of a contagious disease – such as the Middle East respiratory syndrom (MERS) outbreak that severely dented Korean travel numbers in 2015.

“Right now, is there someone not booking a flight because of this tension? Sure, it’s very possible,” Kaplan said. “But there’s no identifiable trend. If anything, travelling figures are seeing a rebound, especially in the case of South Korea, where they are recovering from the MERS outbreak.”

Kaplan noted, however, that if the situation escalates, the overall effect on regional travel and trade logistics with passenger and freight flights would be immense, given the rapid rise of Seoul’s Incheon airport as an international hub in the last decade.

The South Korean hub reported 2.7 tonnes of cargo in 2016, good for fourth-busiest globally, according to Airports Council International. The same report also puts the airport at ninth place for the highest totals for international passenger traffic, at 57.2 million.

But, as of now, said Kaplan, who is travelling to Japan and South Korea in the coming months with his wife and daughter, travellers should just keep a close eye on the situation. “I wouldn’t go there with my family if it was dangerous.”  •