x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Arabian Gulf airlines pay the price of flying around conflict zones

Carriers are avoiding eastern Ukraine and northern Iraq as airlines prioritise safety. Carriers from the Gulf have encountered extra fuel costs and flying time to detour around conflict zones.

Fuel makes up almost a third of airlines’ costs. Christopher Furlong / Getty Images
Fuel makes up almost a third of airlines’ costs. Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

Carriers from the Arabian Gulf are encountering extra fuel costs and flying time to detour around conflict zones, most of them in the Middle East.

Shortly after the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, which was shot down over rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine killing all 283 passengers on board, Gulf airlines declared that they would stop flying over certain conflict areas.

Iraq is facing one of its most deadly challenges since the US pulled out of the country in 2011. The Al Qaeda breakaway group of the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic state of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), has seized a big portion in the north and west of the country. The group possesses sophisticated weapons, such as ground-to-air missiles, capable of targeting airlines.

Consequently, Emirates Airline suspended all its flights to Erbil in northern Iraq this month, along with flights to the Crimean Peninsula. Other Gulf carriers followed suit, adding “hot spots” to the list such as Syria and Gaza, the latter as the conflict between Israelis and Hamas keeps escalating.

“Airlines are not unused to having to modify flight routings for many reasons, however the current range of restricted or no-fly air space does fall disproportionately on the shoulders of Gulf long-haul carriers,” said John Strickland, the director of London-based JLS Consulting.

“It will add to journey times and costs but should be put in the context of their global operations with much of their flying activity unaffected. It is a headache, but one which they have to absorb.”

Declining to reveal a cost estimate, Etihad Airways told The National that “there will be a cost and time effect when flights are rerouted around conflict zones or suspended”. However, safety is the priority, said the Abu Dhabi airline.

Fuel makes up almost a third of airlines’ costs.

The International Air Transport Association (Iata) has estimated airlines would spend US$212 billion on jet fuel this year, or the equivalent of 30 per cent of their total operating cost.

In the wake of the MH17 tragedy, the chief of Iata, said that “safety is the top priority”.

“No airline will risk the safety of their passengers, crew and aircraft for the sake of fuel savings,” said Tony Tyler, the director general and chief executive of Iata.

Worldwide, airlines could soon be plagued by a natural disaster, including a potential cloud of ash from an Icelandic volcano. In 2010 the Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted creating a huge ash plume, and the cancellation of 100,000 flights that caused US$1.7 billion of losses. This time, however, fewer cancellations are expected, reported Bloomberg News, citing the airspace manager Eurocontrol.

Yesterday evening, Iceland’s Meteorological Office said a subglacial eruption was underway at the Bardarbunga volcano, which has been rattled by thousands of earthquakes over the past week.

“It’s not the case with conflict zones only, airlines continually assess their routes and destinations,” said Carole Couchman, a spokeswoman for the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations.

“For instance, if adverse weather is forecast on a particular route they may decide to re-route or delay the flight, whichever is more appropriate,” she said.

“Risk assessments on all aspects of flights are carried out as normal practice, with safety remaining the No 1 priority.”

selgazzar@thenational.ae

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