Cathay Pacific pursers on flight CX893 bound from San Francisco to Hong Kong watched North Korea’s latest missile test explode and fall into the Sea of Japan last Wednesday. As a result, the airline is providing satellite phones for flights headed to South Korea, Canada and the United States.
The supply of satellite phones is only a precautionary measure in case normal lines of communication break down. The missile explosion was quite far away from the plane and did not endanger passengers in any way.
North Korea’s latest ICBM launch took place at the end of last month, and involved a Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile, which travelled some 950 kilometers before falling into the Sea of Japan.
A leaked internal memo by Cathay chief operating officer Mark Hoey confirmed that pursers on one of its flights, CX893 from San Francisco for Hong Kong, saw with their own eyes a missile-like object explode and fall apart above the Sea of Japan near Hokkaido in the wee hours of last Wednesday.
The flight was not disrupted and the plane touched down at Hong Kong International Airport as scheduled.
Another Cathay flight, cargo carrier CX096 en route from Los Angeles via Anchorage to Hong Kong, could have been even closer to the route of Pyongyang’s latest ICBM early the same day.
“Looking at the actual plots, CX096 may have been the closest, at a few hundred miles laterally,” Hoey wrote.
Several Hong Kong newspapers reported this Monday that satellite phones, among others, have been allocated to crews operating flights to and from South Korea in the event that if normal communication is rendered dysfunctional within the Seoul Flight Information Region should there be an attack from the north, Cathay pilots can still contact the airline’s Hong Kong headquarters.
As one of Asia’s largest international carriers, Cathay also maintains a busy North America network covering major hubs in the US and Canada, with 30-40 North America-bound passenger and cargo flights plying the routes that could be disrupted by missiles from North Korea, particularly over Hokkaido and the Sea of Japan.
Satellite phones may also be part of the contingency plan for these flights, according to Apple Daily.
Currently the airline does not intend to change routes but has been in close contact with the One World alliance of which it is a member, as well as Hong Kong, South Korean and Japanese civil-aviation authorities.
Hong Kong lawmaker Jeremy Tam, who used to be a Cathay pilot, told reporters that almost no passenger planes are equipped with military-grade radar and thus are susceptible to missile threats, should a country that fires missiles fail to conform to the standard procedure of promulgating a no-fly zone beforehand.
A passenger jet has a very “slim” chance of escape if targeted by a missile, as seen in multiple past incidents, including Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which was shot down by a surface-to-air missile while en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur in 2014, as well as a Korean Airlines plane that was downed by a Soviet fighter after it deviated from its original route in 1983.
Responding to media inquiries, a Cathay spokesman stressed that the CX893 flight was “very far away” from the missile on Wednesday.
Cathay is considered one of the world’s safest airlines by several aviation associations.