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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Shifting skies over the Middle East as flight paths evolve

Geopolitical tensions in the region are forcing airlines to review routes their aircraft take - hiking costs and creating an ever-changing map of regional airspace

An EgyptAir plane is parked next to other planes on the runway of the Cairo International Airport. Amr Abdallah Dalsh?Reuters
An EgyptAir plane is parked next to other planes on the runway of the Cairo International Airport. Amr Abdallah Dalsh?Reuters

Compare two maps from real-time air tracker service Flightradar24 from 2016 and 2018, and it is easy to see how much Middle East flight paths have changed in recent years.

It is also lamentably easy to see how little the region’s geopolitical tensions have improved over that time, bringing constant disruption to airline operations.

Flight paths 2016. Source: FlightRadar24
Flight paths 2016. Source: FlightRadar24

In the first map, the impact of civil wars in Syria and Iraq is clearly visible. Both countries were effectively "no-fly zones" – Syria remains so – and many aircraft crossing the Middle East were, and still are, funnelled over Iran.

Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, where Russia’s Metrojet Flight 9268 crashed in October 2015, killing all 224 on board, was also viewed as a no-fly zone due to the risk of terrorist attacks and kidnapping. Airlines are still required to maintain altitudes above 26,000 feet over a small portion of the peninsula.

Today, most aircraft continue to avoid the traditional direct route to and from the Arabian Gulf across Syrian and Iraqi airspace but some, including Dubai-based carrier Emirates Airline, have resumed flights over Iraq since victory was declared over ISIL militants in December.

Flight paths 2018. Source: FlightRadar24
Flight paths 2018. Source: FlightRadar24

The UAE’s congested airspace as the country grows as an aviation hub is visible in the second map. The Government last month completed the biggest airspace restructuring in an attempt to reduce delays and streamline the huge volume of air traffic passing through its territory.

Last year, GCC airspace was disrupted more suddenly with the ongoing boycott of Qatar by the UAE and Saudi Arabia-led coalition of allies that has cut off ties with the nation over alleged terrorism funding.

In June, the UAE’s General Civil Aviation Authority closed allied airspace to “all air traffic to and from Doha until further notice”. The UAE this month denied Qatar’s accusation made to the United Nations in December that its fighter aircraft violated Qatari airspace, illustrating the delicate situation.

Israeli airspace is restricted to Arab carriers for political reasons apart from airlines from Egypt and Jordan, which have diplomatic ties with Israel. In September, following the independence referendum by the Kurdish Regional Government, Iraq's government cancelled international flights to the northern Kurdistan region.

Yemen remains a restricted territory as civil war rages, and overall, swathes of the conflict-ridden Middle East are subject to flight path alterations imposed by governments or airlines themselves.

“If we look at geopolitical developments and region-wide airspace restrictions since 2014 we have had a few changes,” says Diogenis Papiomytis, director of the aerospace and defence practice at consultancy Frost & Sullivan.

“In 2015, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan [over certain heights], Sudan and South Sudan could not be overflown by regional airlines. Since then, Yemen has joined the list.

“In addition, caution is given to airlines flying over specific parts of Egypt and Iran. The situation with Qatar is different, but important as it adds up to the complexity.

“Overall, the impact on Middle East carriers is massive, with the operating environment deteriorating over the past three years. The addition of more territories in the medium and high-threat categories means severe network planning restrictions and added costs.”

Airspace restrictions are generally dictated by national aviation authorities. It is then the responsibility of airlines’ aviation security departments to assess route and overflight risk by liaising with the civil aviation authorities, International Air Transport Association, the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and other bodies, meaning restrictions vary depending on the country and carrier.

“Commercial airspace routings are well established but change to reflect any disruptive activity or potential threats,” says John Grant, a partner at Midas Consulting and former vice president of air schedule data provider OAG.

“The Qatari ban is probably the biggest change in the region at present, forcing Qatar Airways to increase their sector times and route aircraft heading towards Africa initially in a south-easterly direction to avoid Saudi and UAE airspace.

“At a higher level, airlines adjust their flight routings each day to take advantage of trade winds and other factors and use the most cost-effective and safest routings for each flight.”

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Regional airlines contacted by The National were reluctant to comment in detail on their decisions. “At Emirates, we regularly review our flight operations in line with advice from the relevant regulators and international authorities, and adjust flight paths accordingly,” said a spokeswoman for Emirates.

“Safety, security and operational efficiency will always be the top considerations when planning flight paths.” She said the airline “does not fly over Syria or Qatar; does use Iranian airspace; does fly over Egyptian airspace, and has resumed utilising Iraqi airspace – some of our flights overfly Iraqi airspace each day.”

A spokesman for the low-cost carrier flydubai, which has also resumed flights over Iraq, said: “Flydubai works closely with the relevant regulatory bodies and international authorities in the planning of its flight paths. All the necessary risk, safety and security assessments are conducted prior to the start of overflying.”

Security considerations can make it hard to get an accurate picture of where restrictions lie and how airlines identify risk. “Attempts at ICAO to find ways to systematise [risk assessments] have fallen for two major reasons,” says Andrew Charlton, the managing director of Switzerland-based think tank Aviation Advocacy.

“First, states are very reluctant to share intelligence they have in these situations, for fear of giving up hints as to exactly how much they know; and secondly the airlines, too, are not keen to reveal the quality of their intelligence. It’s all somewhat cloak and dagger.”

While decisions are “not taken lightly”, he says, one factor in airlines’ decision making can be the cost of flying around certain geographic areas – specifically, the cost of detouring to airspace with expensive charges.

Overflight fees in Iran, which has taken the bulk of aircraft diverted from their usual flight paths in recent years, are about 20 per cent more expensive than other operators in the region, experts say – good news for the economically turbulent country.

“It is very expensive, but the airlines look at it as a cost they have to shoulder, given the alternatives,” Mr Charlton says. “Also, no country’s airspace is free to access, so the cost of being over Iran is a marginal one, not a new cost line, and depends, too, on the additional fuel burn and, thus, fuel costs.”

Lebanon’s Middle East Airlines (MEA) is one of only a handful of regional airlines that still fly over Syria to cross the Gulf, but it has been criticised as a result. A Tunisian man reportedly started a petition on social activism website Change.org in 2013 calling on MEA to stop the Syrian overflights, claiming it risked a “national disaster”. MEA did not respond to requests for comment.

For many airlines, the 2014 shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 by a Russian missile from war-torn Ukraine provided a chilling warning on the dangers of unsettled airspace. “War zones come and war zones go and it’s certainly true that airlines are taking a more conservative approach since MH17,” says Jan Richter, an analyst at the Germany-based Jet Airliner Crash Data Evaluation Centre.

“Certain airspaces are no longer considered safe, but different airlines draw different conclusions from their everlasting wrestle between safety and efficiency.”

Looking ahead, Mr Richter says an increasing number of aircraft flying over the Middle East will reclaim their “inside lane” via eastern Iraq, a route that saves them in miles, time and fuel compared to longer routes through Iranian airspace.

The Qatari boycott will persist for the foreseeable future. ICAO said last June it was reviewing requests from Qatar to assess the flight restrictions imposed on it by neighbouring states, but there has been no resolution thus far.

Meanwhile, an ongoing diplomatic discord between Saudi Arabia and Iran has yet to result in closed air space between the two, “but this could change at a moment’s notice”, says Saj Ahmad, chief analyst at Strategic Aero Research.

George Rhodes, Iata's assistant director of safety and flight operations, infrastructure, says the industry body’s Middle East Contingency Coordination Team (CCT), introduced in 2014, “has managed challenges effectively”. The CCT uses a structured communications plan to coordinate airspace and air traffic route availability.

Still, the Middle East has always been a complicated region for airlines and air navigation officials, he says. “The region is located in the middle of heavily used air routes that extend from Europe to South East Asia. It also has its own set of challenges due to political reasons and political unrest.”

In theory, the Middle East allows for transit and air space movement between all nations. In reality, the situation is complicated and always in flux.