Middle East airlines learn lessons about dangerous skies after MH17

The downing of the plane has made many companies consider the airspace of certain countries off limits due to conflict.

Russian-backed separatists guard the crash site of the MH17 plane near the village of Hrabove, eastern Ukraine, on July 16, 2015. Mstyslav Chernov/AP Photo
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BEIRUT // One year after flight MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine, airlines have begun taking the dangers of war more seriously, and skies over the troubled Middle East have changed dramatically.

Now, maps of the region on air traffic tracking sites show the usual heavy stream of aircraft, but only a handful dare to traverse the airspace over Iraq and Syria: Iraqi Airways flights to Baghdad, a few Syrian Air jets heading out of regime-held Damascus and Latakia, and perhaps a Middle East Airlines Dubai to Beirut flight over Iraq’s dangerous Anbar province.

Airlines have always talked about their commitment to safety. But for the most part, companies were indifferent to the threats posed by war until Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine on July 17 last year, killing 298 people. While investigations into the downed aircraft are ongoing, evidence has pointed to a surface-to-air missile being the likely culprit.

Before this tragedy, frequent flyers in the Middle East could often glance out their windows during points in their journey at Iraqi and Syrian cities and towns in the grips of war — though that does not always look like much from 30,000 feet.

But not long after the MH17 incident, most carriers began rerouting their flights to take a circuitous route between destinations, bypassing Iraq and Syria.

“It has added a lot of time for airlines. This means more cost, more fuel burn, maintenance costs and so on — this has really affected the industry,” said Hussein Dabbas, the regional vice president for Africa and the Middle East at the International Air Transport Association.

Previously, a flight from Beirut to Amman on Royal Jordanian, for example, would take about an hour — just a quick hop into Syrian airspace and across the Jordanian border. Now that route takes nearly twice as long, with planes flying out into the Mediterranean before cutting down over Egypt.

Choosing to route flights away from conflict zones is not a difficult choice for many airlines, however.

“We have clients that just as a matter of their own internal policy they will spend the extra flight time so they don’t have to put their executives or clients or other passengers on the plane at risk. They will fly around Syria, they will fly around Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan,” said Bobby Butler, senior vice president at Universal Weather and Aviation, a company that provides aviation trip support and planning for private flights. “It may cost additional resources such as their fuel burn and so forth, but just as a matter of managing their own internal risks, they choose to fly around versus fly over.”

Many regional and transcontinental flights that once cut across Iraq and Syria going both east and west are now routed over Iran.

According to Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency, last December, deputy CEO for Aeronautical Operations at Iran Airports Company, Ebrahim Shoushtari, said that the November to December period saw a 75 per cent increase in overflights, averaging 935 flights through Iranian airspace per day. Iranian officials have directly credited the downing of MH17 with the increased traffic they have seen.

“We think they are doing a good job in handling that huge amount of traffic that is coming from and to the Gulf that is now flying over Iran rather than Iraq,” said Mr Dabbas, from the International Air Transport Association

When traversing a nation that they are not landing in, aircraft pay overflight and navigation fees to the country’s civil aviation authority. Iran has likely seen a boost in revenue from overflight and navigation fees, but how much exactly is unknown.

Such payments to Iran by US carriers are exempt from sanctions as per the US Department of Treasury.

Mr Shoushtari said last year that Iran earns between US$50 (Dh183.64) and $2,000 from each overflight depending on the weight of the aircraft, according to Agence France-Presse.

While most airlines have decided to avoid Iraq and Syria, the calculation of danger and risk is still left up to the airlines, their home countries and the aviation administrations of the countries they are flying through.

American airlines, for example, were barred from flying through Iraq and Syria by directives issued by the US Federal Aviation Administration last year.

But other airlines face no such restrictions.

Lebanon’s Middle East Airlines appears to be the only carrier that regularly continues to fly across Iraq and Syria when not flying to destinations in those countries, ostensibly to cut down on fuel usage, cost and flight time. Nestled against Syria and further constrained by not being allowed to use Israeli air space, the Lebanese carrier’s routes to the east would involve a significant detour without cutting through those two countries.

Like several other regional carriers contacted by The National, representatives of Middle East Airlines did not respond to interview requests.