FAA bans US flights over Iraq and Iran after missile attacks

Several international carriers said they would stop flying over Iran and Iraq’s airspaces as tensions mount.

US aviation regulator FAA said 'heightened military activities and increased political tensions in the Middle East ... present an inadvertent risk to US civil aviation operations' [File: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg]

The United States’s Federal Aviation Administration has said it would ban US carriers from operating in the airspace over Iraq, Iran and the Gulf of Oman, as well as the waters between Iran and Saudi Arabia, after Iran launched a missile attack on US-led forces in Iraq.

Tehran fired more than a dozen missiles from Iranian territory targeting at least two Iraqi military bases hosting US-led coalition forces, the US military said on Tuesday. Iran had announced the attack was in retaliation for a US drone attack that killed Qassem Soleimani, an Iranian elite military commander on Friday.

The FAA said it issued the airspace ban “due to heightened military activities and increased political tensions in the Middle East, which present an inadvertent risk to US civil aviation operations”.

The ban was announced just a few hours before a Boeing 737 belonging to Ukraine International Airlines crashed due to technical problems after takeoff from Iran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport, with 180 passengers and crew on board.

“The FAA is being proactive in protecting the airspace and ensuring that US-based aircraft and aircraft flying over the region are safe,” Kyle Bailey, an aviation analyst who was previously a safety representative with the FAA, told Al Jazeera.

Several non-US airlines had flights over parts of Iraq and Iran at the time, according to FlightRadar24 data. They are not directly affected by the FAA ban, but foreign carriers and their national regulators typically consider US advice carefully when deciding where to fly.

Before the latest guidance, the FAA had already prohibited US carriers from flying below 26,000 feet (7,925 metres) over Iraq and from flying through an area of Iranian airspace above the Gulf and Gulf of Oman since Iran shot down a high-altitude US drone last June.

Other airlines have also said they would stop flying through both Iran and Iraq’s airspace.

Taiwan’s largest carrier China Airlines said on Wednesday that it would not fly over Iran or Iraq due to regional tensions.

The company said in a statement that it will continue to monitor the situation and adjust routes accordingly.

Singapore Airlines Ltd said after the attack on US bases in Iraq that all its flights would be diverted from Iranian airspace.

South Korean airline Korean Air said it had been avoiding Iranian and Iraqi airspace before the attack on US troops.

OPSGROUP, which advises airlines on security threats, said the new US airspace bans were “significant”, particularly given that the entire overwater airspace in the region is now unavailable.

Carriers are increasingly taking steps to limit threats to their planes after Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down in 2014 by a missile over Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board.

Re-routing around conflict airspace adds to flight times and burns extra fuel.

An international aviation team has been activated to support “effective coordination and communication” between airlines and countries as tensions mount in the Middle East after the assassination of Soleimani, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said on Tuesday.

Airlines and the United Nations’s aviation agency have started to monitor strategic airspace over Iran and Iraq. With some commercial carriers still serving those countries and others flying through their airspace, the IATA also issued a statement reminding countries of their obligation to communicate potential risks to civil aviation.

“It is critical that states live up to this obligation as tensions in the Middle East rise,” IATA said, days after the killing of Soleimani on Friday plunged the region into a new crisis.

On Monday, Germany published a new warning for Iraq, indicating areas of concern for overflying traffic, according to a report published by OPSGROUP.

The coordination team operated by IATA and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) was activated as a “standard precautionary measure” in the event that contingency measures are required by airlines, IATA said in a statement to Reuters news agency.

The team brings together airlines, regulators and air navigation service providers to ensure any potential risks to aviation are shared quickly, an industry source familiar with the group said.

“Everyone’s urging restraint,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Airspace controlled by Iran and Iraq is seen as strategic for commercial aviation in the Middle East. If the need arose to shut down the airspace, carriers would have to be rerouted which would lead to greater congestion and fuel costs, said the source.

Source: Reuters