The Federal Aviation Administration is treating portions of the skies around Iran similar to those of a war zone. Following the downing of a US drone (the size of a commercial passenger aircraft) this week the FAA will not permit US passenger planes or pilots to operate in the overwater areas within Iranian airspace. The FAA cites “heightened military activities and increased political tensions in the region, which present an inadvertent risk to US civil aviation operations and potential for miscalculation or mis-identification” in establishing the exclusion zone.
The immediate impact of the move sees United Airlines halting its flights to Mumbai (BOM). The aircraft already in India will take a circuitous route on its return to the United States. The carrier had previously suspended its service to Delhi owing to restrictions over Pakistani airspace. United’s flight does not typically transit the affected area, only flying over land in Iranian airspace. Nonetheless, the carrier is halting the flights.
The announcement of the restriction follows not only the US drone hit but also the filing of formal criminal charges in the case of MH17 being shot down over Ukraine five years ago. In that incident flight restrictions were in place but only to a lower altitude. The move this week to close the airspace to civilian activities can be seen as a move to ensure that similar tragedy is not repeated.
It also could be seen as an offensive play rather than a defensive one, at least economically speaking. Airlines pay to overfly countries. Blocking the traffic means US carriers will not be paying Iran for those overflights any more. The total impact would be limited if only US airlines were affected (just that one United flight). But US airlines are not the only ones avoiding the space.
The rule does not exclude foreign airlines from operating in the area but it appears that many are choosing to do precisely that. Comparing traffic over Iran from a few days ago and today it is clear that far fewer planes are in the area now.
Combined with the limits over Pakistani airspace the region will continue to see challenges around air traffic management and potential delays related to moving more planes through an already complex and congested space.