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International Relations

Asian airlines respond to North Korea missile test threat

Korean Air Lines plans detours and JAL airliners take on extra fuel

Korean Air's airplanes are seen at the Incheon International airport May 17, 2017 (Photo by Takaki Kashiwabara).

TOKYO/SEOUL -- Airlines that fly over or near the Korean Peninsula have contingency plans should North Korea test another missile.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Jan.16 highlighted the threat North Korean missile tests can pose to civil aviation while speaking at a meeting in Vancouver, where officials from 20 nations discussed Korean Peninsula-related security issues. North Korea launched 20 ballistic missiles last year.

Korean Air Lines said it would consider stopping flights from Incheon International Airport, near Seoul, to Guam, a U.S. territory in the western Pacific, if North Korea moved to fire a missile toward the Micronesian island. South Korea's largest airline said its Incheon-Tokyo Narita route and Incheon-Sydney route could be affected by a North Korean missile test and that it had predetermined detours that its jetliners can take to avoid trouble.

Tillerson said passengers on a San Francisco-Hong Kong flight in late November had witnessed "parts of a North Korean ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] test." Showing a radar map of international flights around the Korean Peninsula, he explained that an estimated 716 flights were due to pass within 280 nautical miles from the point of impact on the day of the launch.

"According to the Federal Aviation Administration," Tillerson said, "the flight [on its way to Hong Kong] was 280 nautical miles from point of impact" when it spotted the test.

North Korea's willingness to launch missiles at any time presented a threat to people of all nationalities in the region's airspace each day," Tillerson said. "Based on its past recklessness, we cannot expect North Korea to have any regard for what might get in the way of one of its missiles."

People in Seoul watch a TV showing news of North Korea's missile launch in late November 2017. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

Japan Airlines spokesperson on Jan.18 said one of its captains had also reported seeing "a flashing object" in the distance while flying on the day of the missile test in November. The airline said it was difficult to prepare for another test, because there was no saying when one might come and where the missile would be pointed.

While route changes must be determined by the control tower to avoid collisions between civilian planes, "we will consider options including landing at an alternative airport and returning back to the departure point if a missile is in the vicinity," a Japan Airlines' spokesperson said.

JAL planes were carrying extra fuel to prepare for such contingencies, the spokesman said.

A spokesman for All Nippon Airways, under ANA Holdings, said the company was working closely with relevant authorities and closely monitoring the situation.

The International Air Transport Association, which has not issued any guidelines regarding missile tests, echoed Tillerson's concerns. In response to queries from the Nikkei Asian Review, the IATA said it condemned North Korea's ballistic missile launches over and near international air routes. The organization also stressed North Korea's "obligations to comply with international standards under the Chicago Convention and to provide advance notice of any launches."

Asian airlines based farther away from North Korea seem to be reacting to the situation with less urgency. A spokesperson from Indonesian flagship carrier Garuda Indonesia said it had not been affected so far because the missiles had been directed to the northeast, away from its routes to Incheon as well as airports in China and Japan. 

Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific said the airline would "remain alert and review the situation as it evolves."  Thai Airways and Malaysia Airlines said their flights were not affected.

Singapore Airlines said in December it had changed the route of its Seoul-Los Angeles flight to avoid the northern part of the Sea of Japan after a missile was launched by North Korea into the sea in July. The airline said the current flight path still did not transverse that part of the sea, and assured the company "will continue to monitor the situation and will make necessary route changes if required."

Nikkei staff writer Juliette Perreard in Geneva contributed to this story.

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