Airlines in the Middle East are used to avoiding trouble spots, but airspace closures spurred by mounting tension between Iran and the U.S. mean they now face diversions whether flying north, south, east or west.
Route of the Problem
Conflicts in the region had left a legacy of no-fly zones long before the latest flareup between Washington and Tehran. Israeli airlines have been barred from skies above most other Mideast states for decades, while wars in Syria and Yemen mean overflights there are too risky, according to regulators. And rifts between Arab nations have added to the patchwork of no-go areas.
Restrictions imposed by the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority and followed by most carriers worldwide after Iran’s destruction of an American drone, mean airspace above the Strait of Hormuz is also out of bounds. While better known as a shipping route, the corridor also provides the fastest aeriel link between the Persian Gulf to parts of south Asia.
The restrictions are more than just an irritation. Diversions can add thousands of miles and several hours to journeys, deterring passengers and swelling the fuel bill even as carriers including Dubai-based Emirates, Qatar Airways and Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways grapple with an economic slowdown in the region.
Here’s a selection of some of the worst-affected routes:
- Etihad flights to the Pakistani capital Islamabad began avoiding the eastern end of the Persian Gulf following the FAA edict last month.
- Emirates has been diverting services to Addis Ababa away from Yemen since a war erupted in the desert nation in 2015.
- El Al must fly down the Red Sea and up the Gulf of Aden to avoid Saudi airspace en route to Mumbai. That adds two hours to the trip from Tel Aviv and puts the Israeli carrier at a huge disadvantage after the Saudis let Air India fly the route direct.
- Qatar Airways, barred from overflying Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates after a political spat, must swing north across Syria to reach Rome.
- Royal Jordanian, by contrast is among carriers that actively avoid Syria because of the simmering conflict there. Flights to other Arab states also can’t cross Israel, so that an Amman-Beirut service must head south before looping north over Egypt, doubling the travel time.
- Saudi Arabian Airlines likewise avoids both Syria and Israel, so that its flights from Riyadh to Istanbul take an L-shaped detour to cross the Mediterranean.