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How Middle East airspace closures may affect your travel

Jan. 08, 2020
6 min read
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A number of major airlines have adjusted flight paths to avoid flying over Iranian and Iraqi airspace following a rise in conflict in the region. Iran has fired multiple missiles against Iraqi military bases housing United States-led coalition forces in retaliation for the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. airstrike in Baghdad last week.

The military escalation prompted the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority to ban all American carriers from flying over Iran, Iraq, the Gulf of Oman and the waters between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

If you are flying to, from or over this area, here is what you need to know.

Related: Here’s what you need to know about travelling to the Middle East right now

Cancelled flights

Lufthansa, Emirates, Egyptair and FlyDubai have cancelled services to both Iran and Iraq, effective immediately, with Emirates advising it is monitoring the situation on a constant basis.

British Airways and Virgin Atlantic do not operate scheduled flights to either country.

Longer flight times

CNBC reports a number of major airlines including Air Canada, Air France/KLM, British Airways, China Airlines, Lufthansa, Malaysia Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Qantas and Virgin Atlantic are now adjusting their flight paths to avoid flying over Iranian airspace, with some of these airlines also avoiding Iraqi airspace.

Two British Airways planes, one Boeing 747-400 and one 777-200ER, both operating scheduled services from London Heathrow (LHR) to Dubai (DXB) diverted to Istanbul on 7 January rather than entering Iranian airspace, according to the BA Source. Flight BA134 operating from Mumbai (BOM) to Heathrow on 8 January took the unusual flight path below, before eventually diverting to Athens (ATH).

As you can see from the image below, Singapore Airlines flight SQ317 from London (LHR) to Singapore (SIN) on 4 January 2020 flew a more or less straight line over Iran to its destination.

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SQ317 LHR-SIN 4 January 2020. (Image courtesy of FlightRadar24)

But the same flight SQ317 on 7 January took a less-direct route in order to fly around Iran, rather than over it.

SQ317 LHR-SIN 7 January 2020. (Image courtesy of FlightRadar24)

For airlines avoiding the airspace, aircraft will take longer to reach their destinations as they have to fly farther in a more indirect way.

Qantas has already announced the airspace avoidance would add 50 minutes of flight time to its marathon nonstop 787 Dreamliner service between London (LHR) and Perth (PER). Executive Traveller reports that the airline will also block more than a third of the Dreamliner's 236 seats in order to operate the ultra long-haul route nonstop westbound, though it may add a refueling stop in the future in order to operate the flight with a full cabin of passengers while still avoiding the airspace.

FlightRadar24 has released an interesting image showing how some European airlines are avoiding the space by flying indirect paths.

For long-haul flights especially, it's common for airlines to pad their published schedules, meaning the scheduled flight time is longer than the time it will usually take for the plane to fly from origin to destination. If you've ever departed on a flight late but still arrived on time, or even early, this may have been because of the padded schedule.

Where airlines do pad their schedules, the slightly longer flight time alone should not affect the airline's ability to arrive on schedule. For example, flight SQ317 on 7 January landed early, even with the indirect flight path.

Your flight may depart slightly late, should the inbound aircraft arrive late because of an airspace-avoiding indirect flight path and an insufficiently padded schedule. This can then have a knock-on effect where airlines have tight turnaround times and may lead to airlines slightly adjusting their schedules to account for longer flight times.

It's a good idea to check any upcoming bookings you might have where your aircraft will fly over the Middle East to see if your scheduled departure or arrival times has changed — especially if you have a tight connection.

U.S. airlines do not have scheduled passenger services in the region, but U.S. cargo carriers do — and they're avoiding the area of possible conflict altogether by flying over Saudi Arabia. Here's a UPS flight from Delhi, India (DEL) to Cologne, Germany (CGN), giving the Gulf and Iraq a very wide (and expensive in fuel burn) berth on Wednesday.

Unaffected flights

Reuters reports that a number of airlines are still operating over Iran and/or Iraq airspace, including Air Arabia, Emirates (noting it is not operating flights to these countries), Etihad, FlyDubai (noting it is not operating flights to these countries), Norwegian, Qatar Airways and Turkish Airlines.

Live pictures of aircraft in the Middle East. (Image courtesy of FlightRadar24)

Note that the FAA ban only applies to U.S. civil aviation operators, which the above airlines do not fall under the definition of.

Etihad has advised TPG that it "has air robust contingency plans in place in case of unexpected changes to air routes though is currently continuing to operate normally". However, for passengers who want to change their travel arrangements, the airline says to contact the Etihad Airways Contact Centre on (+971) 600 555 666.If you are uncomfortable with the idea of your flight passing over the airspace in question, you should contact the airline to firstly confirm if the flight will do so, and your options for refunds to change to an airline that is not.

Qatar Airways is already subject to significant airspace restrictions in the region as a result of the long-running Gulf blockade, meaning flights to destination like Western Europe already have to fly in a fairly indirect way.

Qatar Airways flight path from Doha to Barcelona. (Image courtesy of FlightRadar24)

If Qatar Airways chooses to also avoid Iraq and Iran airspace as well, it is likely to have a significant impact on its ability to operate flights efficiently and profitably, as there will three large adjoining countries the airline cannot fly over (Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq).