Major airlines are steering clear of Iranian airspace — except these

Jan 11, 2020

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Following the news that Ukrainian’s Boeing 737 that crashed in Tehran was likely shot down by an Iranian military anti-aircraft missile, most airlines are avoiding Iranian airspace.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has actually banned U.S. airlines from flying over Iran, as well as Iraq and the waters between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula, following the Iranian missile attack on a U.S. base in Iraq on Tuesday. The tense situation that followed the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. drone strike on Jan. 3 is continuing, and airlines are taking action to stay safe.

Flight-tracking site FlightRadar24 showed, in this screen capture taken Friday morning U.S. time, that airlines including Air France, British Airways, KLM, Lufthansa, Swiss, Austrian and Alitalia were avoiding Iran by flying north of it, and Iraq by flying to / from Europe over Saudi Arabia. The most direct route to Europe would otherwise go over Iran, Iraq or Syria — and the airspace over the latter has been a no-go for most of the time since the Syrian civil war began in 2011.

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Screenshot from Flightradar24

In a striking visual representation of how airlines reacted to the news that one of their own had been likely downed by a missile, with the loss of 176 lives, the captain of Lufthansa flight 600 to Tehran turned around in midair on Thursday. The Airbus A330 serving the route that day was equipped with Wi-Fi; passengers and crew would easily have been able to learn in real time of the reports on the downing of Air Ukraine International flight PS752.

The airline confirmed in a tweet that Thursday’s flight LH 600, on its way from Frankfurt to Tehran, returned to Frankfurt because of the situation in Iran. Reuters reported that all flights to Iran by Lufthansa Group airlines, including Austrian, Swiss, Eurowings and Brussels Airlines, are suspended until Jan. 20. A tweet by Austrian Airlines said that this is “due to the latest reports and the changed assessment of the security situation for the airspace around Tehran airport.”

The biggest airlines based in the Gulf are also avoiding Iranian airspace, except Qatar Airways. FlightRadar24 showed, also on Friday, that Emirates (coded UAE on the map) and Etihad (coded ETD) were both avoiding Iran as well as Iraq, by overflying Saudi Arabia instead.

However, the third member of the triad of big Gulf-based carriers, Qatar Airways, was not, and some of its flights (coded QTR) could be seen over Iran.

Screenshot from Flightradar24

The reason for that is, in fact, not that Qatar Airways has a higher risk tolerance than other carriers. It’s that it simply cannot go elsewhere, because it is barred from flying over its neighboring countries. Qatar and several other Arab countries have been locked in a dispute since 2017, with a group of countries led by Saudi Arabia accusing the Qatari government of sponsoring terrorism. Qatar denies the accusation, but as a consequence its airplanes are barred from entering its neighbor countries — hence the need to overfly Iran.      

We have reached out to Qatar Airways for comment, and to find out whether passengers who feel unsafe with overflying Iran will get fee waivers if they opt to cancel or postpone their flights. We hadn’t heard back by publication time, and will update this post when that happens. (Etihad and Emirates have returned to Iraqi airspace since the screenshot was taken, with several flights shown both north-and southbound over Iraq.)

The only other major international airline shown overflying Iran on Friday was Turkish Airlines, which had several airplanes over the country, including over the spot where PS752 went down. Oman Air and Pakistan International also had at least one aircraft each over Iran. We’ve also asked for a comment from these carriers, and will add them to this story.

Featured image: Screenshot from FlightRadar24.

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