New Routes and Cancellations: Airlines Worldwide React to the U.S. Ban on Iranian Airspace

June 21, 2019, 10:41 AM UTC

Early Friday morning, the Federal Aviation Administration banned all U.S.-registered aircraft from flying over Iranian airspace, and airlines worldwide are following the guidance.

The FAA warned of a “potential for miscalculation or misidentification” in the region after an Iranian surface-to-air missile on Thursday brought down an unmanned U.S. drone with a wingspan larger than a Boeing 737 jetliner.

Iran said the drone “violated” its territorial airspace, while the U.S. called the missile fire “an unprovoked attack” in international airspace over the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf.

There are “heightened military activities and increased political tensions in the region, which present an inadvertent risk to U.S. civil aviation operations and potential for miscalculation or misidentification,” the FAA said.

The Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman are crucial areas for international air travel, and many global airlines are following the U.S. safety advice.

Lufthansa, Germany’s largest airline, said it had been avoiding the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman since Thursday, but that it would continue to operate its flights to Tehran.

Dutch carrier KLM also said it would avoid the strait, calling the move a “precautionary measure,” according to the Associated Press.

United Airlines said it has suspended its flights between Newark, N.J., and Mumbai, India, which fly through Iranian airspace, following a “thorough safety and security review.”

Australia’s Qantas said it would reroute its flights to and from London to avoid the Strait of Hormuz and Gulf of Oman.

British Airways also said it will reroute flights away from the Strait of Hormuz. The company said Friday that “our safety and security teams are constantly liaising with authorities around the world as part of their comprehensive risk assessment into every route we operate.”

Malaysia Airlines said it was avoiding the airspace, which it normally traversed for its flights between Kuala Lumpur and London, Jeddah, and Medina. “The airline is closely monitoring the situation and is guided by various assessments, including security reports and notices to airmen,” it said.

Singapore Airlines said some of its flights might require longer routings to avoid Iranian-controlled airspace.

Long-haul Gulf airlines at risk

The situation could further imperil the bottom lines of Persian Gulf long-haul carriers, which already have faced challenges under the Trump administration.

The Gulf is home to some of the world’s top long-haul carriers, which have been battered by Trump’s travel bans targeting a group of predominantly Muslim countries, as well as an earlier ban on laptops in airplane cabins for Middle Eastern carriers. Etihad, the Abu Dhabi-based long-haul carrier, said it had “contingency plans” in place, without elaborating.

Dubai Airshow 2017 continues in United Arab Emirates
Gulf carriers like Etihad could be at further risk because of the new FAA ban on Iranian airspace. (Photo by Marina Lystseva—TASS via Getty Images)
Marina Lystseva—TASS via Getty Images

“We will decide what further action is required after carefully evaluating the FAA directive to U.S. carriers,” the carrier told The AP.

OPSGROUP, a company that provides guidance to global airlines, wrote Friday: “The threat of a civil aircraft shoot-down in southern Iran is real.”

OPSGROUP said the Iranian weapons system that shot down the drone was comparable to the Russian Buk system used in 2014 Malaysian Airlines shoot-down in Ukraine. Since the MH17 disaster, all countries rely on airspace risk advice from the U.S., U.K., France and Germany.

“Any error in that system could cause it to find another target nearby—another reason not to be anywhere near this part of the Straits of Hormuz,” OPSGROUP said. “Bottom line: we should not be flying passenger aircraft anywhere near war zones.”

Abandoned plans for retaliation

In response to the drone downing, President Donald Trump initially tweeted that “Iran made a very big mistake!” He later appeared to play down the incident, telling reporters in the Oval Office that he had a feeling “a general or somebody” being “loose and stupid” made a mistake in neutralizing the drone.

A U.S. official said the military made preparations Thursday night for limited strikes on Iran in retaliation for the downing, but approval was abruptly withdrawn before the attacks were launched, according to the AP.

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 20: President Donald Trump speaks as he w
Trump discussed the escalating Iran crisis at a press conference with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Thursday. (Photo by Oliver Contreras/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Oliver Contreras—The Washington Post/Getty Images

The drone incident immediately heightened the crisis already gripping the wider region, which is rooted in Trump withdrawing the U.S. a year ago from Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal and imposing crippling new sanctions on Tehran. Recently, Iran quadrupled its production of low-enriched uranium to be on pace to break one of the deal’s terms by next week, while threatening to raise enrichment closer to weapons-grade levels on July 7 if Europe doesn’t offer it a new deal.

Citing unspecified Iranian threats, the U.S. has sent an aircraft carrier to the Middle East and deployed additional troops alongside the tens of thousands already there. All this has raised fears that a miscalculation or further rise in tensions could push the U.S. and Iran into an open conflict, 40 years after Tehran’s Islamic Revolution.

“We do not have any intention for war with any country, but we are fully ready for war,” Revolutionary Guard commander Gen. Hossein Salami said in a televised address Thursday.

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