No end in sight for airspace impact of Qatar rift

The huge spike in aircraft using Iranian airspace may increase even further unless a political solution is found, reports Aimée Turner & Ali Akbarian.

Qatar Airways is currently unable to fly over Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Saudi Arabia after neighbouring states cut economic and diplomatic ties over Doha’s alleged support for terrorism – a claim denied by Qatari officials.

Chief executive of Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization Ali Abedzadeh reported earlier this week that Qatar’s unexpected request has led to a 17 per cent increase in air traffic. “It is a very difficult task to respond to a request of this size at short notice,” he said, noting that Iran has managed to offer the needed capacity due to recent efforts to meet ever increasing demand to use its airspace.

Middle Eastern states have historically avoided flying through Iranian airspace for political reasons even though it would prove far more efficient in terms of routing.

When Malaysian Airlines MH17 was hit by a missile over Ukraine airspace during Ukraine-Russia crisis, airlines however opted to avoid that conflict zone and use either Turkish and/or Iranian airspace. Those flight diversion measures meant an additional 250-300 overflights adding to Iran’s typical level of 500 daily overflights

Subsequent fears that a similar terrorist threat existed in Iraqi airspace led to Iranian air navigation authorities handling even more traffic, adding another 400 overflights which took the number of daily overflights to more than 1,100. This was supported by the Iranian authorities holding lengthy and complex negotiations with neighbouring states on developing new upper airspace routes to ensure safe operations.

The new ban on Qatari air traffic using the airspace of surrounding states has now further increased the level of en-route traffic handled by Iranian controllers.

“After we received an ICAO request to help Qatari, we only had 16 hours to be prepared for receiving an additional 250 overflights. So, all the top managers of the company held meetings from noon through the night to be fully prepared to handle it,” Ebrahim Moradi, executive board member of Iran Airports & Air Navigation Company, tells Air Traffic Management.

“We immediately informed Qatar Airways operational managers to brief all their flight crews on the routeing, and how best to negotiate the banned airspace, especially those flights heading to African destinations in an effort to make shorter distances and reduce fuel consumption. To keep the sky safe, as soon as possible, we divided two related sectors into four with two new frequencies, and published urgent NOTAMs to all users.”

He pointed out that the more significant issue is the fact that Qatar has delegated its airspace to Bahrain air traffic controllers on all flights as they reach lower altitudes.

“When Bahrain banned Qatar from using its airspace, it meant there was suddenly no way to fly. After ICAO applied pressure, Bahrain did however allow Qatari air traffic to use two limited corridors, albeit in very limited airspace to and from Iran. Immediately, Qatar asked Iran to control those outbound and inbound flights at lower levels, meaning that Iranian en-route controllers must now offer an approach control service to 410 Qatari daily flights, too. All because Bahrain controllers now do it for Qatar; Doha no longer has approach controllers to offer this service.”

Qatar is now understood to be negotiating with ICAO to regain control over the whole of its sovereign airspace under ICAO Chicago Convention treaty rules.

“If that happens and Qatar authorities take retaliatory action and ban Emirates Airlines, Gulf Air, Saudia and Egypt Airways from its airspace, all calculations will change again which could mean all flights over the Persian Gulf must fly over Iran, too. That would mean nearly 200 additional overflights in Iranian airspace,” the official said.

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