Emirates to Stop Iraq Overflights, But Not Etihad

 - July 29, 2014, 9:30 AM
Etihad Airways continues to fly over ISIS-controlled regions of Iraq. (Photo: Airbus)

The apparent lack of a cohesive international system for assessing threats in airspace over conflict zones has revealed itself again in differing conclusions reached by major Persian Gulf airlines about the dangers of flying over Iraq.

Emirates Airline president Tim Clark recently told The Times of London that his airline would stop using the airspace over regions controlled by ISIS militants as intelligence agencies investigate whether the terrorist group might have acquired surface-to-air missiles capable of shooting down a commercial airplane flying at altitudes higher than 30,000 feet.  

Routing around Iraq could put Emirates at something of a competitive disadvantage on heavily traveled routes between Dubai and Western Europe. Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways harbors no plans to follow Emirates’ example. In a statement to AIN, Etihad insisted that its security analyses indicate the route remains safe. 

“Etihad maintains high levels of surveillance in key areas of risk, both from internal assessments, and the support of external intelligence agencies that are used to objectively validate all assumptions,” it said. “These assessments also include consultation with other airlines and agencies via established forums within IATA and ICAO.

“This approach has been applied to our operations to/from and over Iraq for many years. There is no evidence that either the capability or the intent exists to target aircraft overflying Iraq, by either side of the current conflict in Iraq. The nature of the current security environment in Iraq is significantly different than in Ukraine.”

Etihad’s reference to Ukraine reflects a now virtually universal agreement that flying over the conflict region around Donetsk in the eastern part of the country would put passengers at undue risk following the downing on July 17 of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17. All 298 occupants died when, according to Western military intelligence, Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine shot down Flight MH17 as it flew at 33,000 feet over the area.

At the time of the Malaysia tragedy, some airlines already had elected to stop flying over eastern Ukraine, suggesting less than uniform access to intelligence about the threat. Etihad, however, insists its sophisticated risk assessments leave no doubt about the safety of flying over northern Iraq.

“Etihad Airways was one of the first Gulf carriers to electively suspend flights to both the Syrian capital Damascus (in August 2012) and Tripoli (November 2013),” it added. “Last month operations to Peshawar in Pakistan were also suspended because of security concerns. These decisions demonstrate a sophisticated risk-adverse approach that underscores both our awareness and our assessment capability.”