SINGAPORE (REUTERS) - Singapore Airlines (SIA) and budget airline Scoot said on Wednesday (Jan 8) they were diverting all flight routes from Iranian airspace, as the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said it would ban US carriers from operating in the airspace over Iraq, Iran, the Gulf of Oman and the waters between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The move comes after Iran said it launched a missile attack on United States-led forces in Iraq in the early hours of Wednesday in retaliation for a US drone strike on an Iranian commander whose killing has raised fears of a wider war in the Middle East.
"In view of the latest developments between the US and Iran, all SIA flights in and out of Europe are diverted from Iranian airspace," SIA said, adding that the carrier has not operated flights over Iraqi airspace since 2012.
The airline said the affected flights have been taking different flight paths since Monday and that the new routes do not significantly change flight times.
"We are closely monitoring the situation in the region and will take the appropriate precautions if necessary," SIA told The Straits Times.
Scoot, which is a subsidiary of SIA, said that with the latest developments in the region, all its flights in and out of Europe and Saudi Arabia will not be flying over Iranian airspace.
Meanwhile, Dubai-based Emirates said two of its flights on Wednesday - EK 943 from Dubai to Baghdad and EK 944 from Baghdad to Dubai - were cancelled for "operational reasons".
"We are carefully monitoring the developments and are in close contact with the relevant government authorities with regard to our flight operations, and will make further operational changes if required," an Emirates spokesman said.
Qatar Airways said that all its services, including flights to and from Singapore, are currently operating as scheduled and "we continue to closely monitor developments in the region as the safety of our passengers and employees is of the highest importance".
Teheran fired more than a dozen ballistic missiles from Iranian territory against at least two Iraqi military bases hosting US-led coalition personnel, the US military said.
The FAA said it issued the airspace ban "due to heightened military activities and increased political tensions in the Middle East, which present an inadvertent risk to US civil aviation operations".
Several non-US airlines had flights over parts of Iraq and Iran at the time, according to FlightRadar24 data. They are not directly affected by the FAA ban, but foreign carriers and their national regulators typically consider US advice carefully when deciding where to fly.
Before the latest guidance, the FAA had already prohibited US carriers from flying below 26,000 feet over Iraq and from flying over an area of Iranian airspace above the Gulf and Gulf of Oman since Iran shot down a high-altitude US drone last June.
Carriers are increasingly taking steps to limit threats to their planes after Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down in 2014 by a missile over Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board.
Re-routing around conflict airspace adds to flight times and burns extra fuel.
Korean Air Lines and Thai Airways said they had been avoiding Iranian and Iraqi airspace before the attack on US troops.
Malaysia Airlines said it did not fly over Iraqi airspace and would re-route to avoid Iran as a result of the attack.
Taiwan’s China Airlines said it would not fly over Iran or Iraq because of the regional tensions.
Australia’s Qantas Airways said it was adjusting flight paths to avoid airspace over Iraq and Iran until further notice, adding up to 50 minutes to Perth-London flights and requiring it to reduce passenger numbers to carry the necessary fuel.
Germany' Lufthansa dropped its next scheduled flights to Erbil in northern Iraq and to Teheran but said services to the Iranian capital would resume on Thursday, although overflights will continue to be re-routed to avoid both countries' airspace.
Air France-KLM, which axed its Teheran service in 2018, said it was also suspending Air France flights through Iranian and Iraqi airspace "as a precautionary measure".
British Airways said a small number of its flights would be affected by re-routing, without elaborating.
Virgin Atlantic, Air Canada and Taiwan's China Airlines were also among carriers that re-routed flights.
Opsgroup, which advises airlines on security threats, said the new US airspace bans were "significant", particularly given that the entire overwater airspace in the region is now unavailable.
"Flights headed to/from the main airports in the region such as Dubai will now need to route through Saudi Arabia’s airspace," it said on its website.
An international aviation team has been activated to support "effective coordination and communication" between airlines and countries as tensions mount in the Middle East after a US drone strike killed an Iranian military commander, global airlines body International Air Transport Association (Iata) said on Tuesday.
Airlines and the United Nations’ aviation agency have started to monitor strategic airspace over Iran and Iraq. With some commercial carriers still serving those countries and others flying over their airspace, the Iata also issued a statement reminding countries of their obligation to communicate potential risks to civil aviation.
"It is critical that states live up to this obligation as tensions in the Middle East rise," the group said, days after the killing of General Qassem Soleimani last Friday plunged the region into a new crisis.
The coordination team operated by Iata and the International Civil Aviation Organisation was activated as a “standard precautionary measure”, in the event that contingency measures are required by airlines, Iata said in a statement to Reuters.
The team brings together airlines, regulators and air navigation service providers to ensure any potential risks to aviation are shared quickly, an industry source familiar with the group said.
“Everyone’s urging restraint,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Airspace controlled by Iran and Iraq is seen as strategic for commercial aviation in the Middle East. If there were the need to shut down the airspace, carriers would have to be rerouted, which would lead to greater congestion and fuel costs, said the source.
- Additional reporting by Clara Chong