Photograph — Saada Haq

Amid recent tensions between Washington and Tehran, major airlines around the world this week said they were cancelling flights to Iran and Iraq while re-routing others to avoid airspace over both countries. This comes on the back of Wednesday’s missile attack by Iran on United States-led forces in Iraq.

Over a dozen ballistic missiles were fired by Iran, aimed at two Iraqi military bases hosting U.S.-led coalition personnel, reports show. In a response that came within hours of the attack, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued an airspace ban on American carriers which covers airspace over Iran, the Gulf of Oman and the waters between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The agency cited “heightened military activities and increased political tensions in the Middle East, which present an inadvertent risk to U.S. civil aviation operations.” Prior to the ban, FAA had prohibited U.S. carriers from Iranian airspace and from flying below 26,000 feet over Iraq, after Iran shot down a high-altitude U.S. drone last June.

Although non-U.S. airlines continued operations over the affected airspace after the ban, several major carriers soon took a cue from the FAA ban as they look to avoid a repeat of the 2014 incident when a Malaysia Airlines plane was downed by a missile launched from Ukraine, killing 298 people.

In a similar move to the FAA embargo, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) issued a recommendation to national authorities saying European carriers should avoid Iraqi airspace.

Germany’s Lufthansa cancelled its next scheduled flights to northern Iraq and to Tehran on Wednesday but said services to the Iranian capital would resume the following day with overflights to be re-routed to avoid both countries’ airspace.

Air France-KLM, which cancelled its Tehran service in 2018, said it was also suspending Air France flights through Iranian and Iraqi airspace in what it called a “precautionary measure.” Without giving many details, British Airways said a small number of its flights would be affected by re-routing.

Virgin Atlantic, Singapore Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, Air Canada and Taiwan’s China Airlines were some of the other carriers that re-routed flights. Australia’s Qantas Airways, meanwhile, said it would add 50 minutes to its Perth-London flight time and cut passenger numbers to carry more fuel as it re-routes around Iran and Iraq.

While some announced cancellation and re-routing, other major airlines such as Norwegian Air, Turkish Airlines, and Middle East carriers Qatar Airways, Emirates, Etihad Airways, Flydubai, Air Arabia, maintained flights over either Iraq or Iran but said they were actively monitoring the situation.

As safety issues force global airlines to cancel or re-route around the Iran-Iraq conflict airspace, there are concerns about extended flight times and extra fuel as well as the ensuing costs such measures come with. But for Qatar Airways particularly, the use of Iranian and Iraqi airspace is critical. This is because it has been banned from flying over Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain since 2017, a result of the political dispute with its neighbours.

President Donald Trump has since backed away from a potential war with Iran, saying he would not respond militarily to the launch of the ballistic missiles by Tehran. Meanwhile, the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday passed a resolution that seeks to limit Trump’s ability to wage war with Iran.


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