Aviation News

June 5, 2017

Gulf Diplomatic Crisis Hits Qatar Aviation

As part of a political conflict that has built over the past several years, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt have severed diplomatic ties with their Persian Gulf neighbor Qatar. This development will have wide-ranging impacts, including a severe disruption to aviation in the region. Air traffic rights, including landings and overflights, were quickly said to be in jeopardy following announcement of the diplomatic rift.

Shortly after news broke of the crisis, major airlines including Etihad, Emirates, FlyDubai, Air Arabia, and Saudia suspended all traffic into Doha, while Qatar Airways has begun to cut flights to destinations across the Saudi-led group of nations. As the major business centers in the region, the Doha-Dubai route is extremely busy, with roughly 30 daily round-trips between the two cities.

What remains to be seen is the full extent of the airspace impact in the Gulf. A large portion of the airspace in the region is controlled by Bahrain, and primary routes in and out of Qatar require utilization of Saudi airspace, Bahraini airspace, or both. As of midday Monday US time, Qatari aircraft could still be seen operating in the airspace of each of the countries involved, but NOTAMs taking effect on June 6th will begin to change the situation.

Bahrain has posted notices indicating that while overflights will not be prohibited entirely for Qatari-registered aircraft, routings and entry and exit waypoints will be severely restricted. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt, however, have announced a full closure of their airspace to Qatar. This leaves aircraft going to or from Qatar with only Bahraini or Iranian airspace as options. Any flight departing Qatar for points west, including Europe and North America, will likely need to operate a northerly route through the heavily saturated airways of Iran or Turkey. Iraqi airspace is also an option, though its usability is not always assured. Routes that use Iraq will then cross into Turkey, as Syrian airspace is typically avoided.

Regional airspace boundaries in the Middle East (map: ICAO)

While the denial of overflight rights does not entirely prevent Qatari aircraft from departing the Gulf region, it poses serious challenges for flight planning and operations. The northern route out of the Gulf will likely result in payload restrictions or longer flight times on many routes.

The severity of the direct impact will vary from route to route, and not every westbound flight from Qatar will be affected significantly, but longer flight times with minimal time for contingency planning will have a ripple effect on operations as a whole. With little notice, schedule changes will potentially impact crew duty, aircraft utilization, maintenance schedules, and any interline connections across the system.

As the situation develops, air traffic rights have the potential to play a key role in diplomatic efforts to alleviate the overarching crisis, as aviation has developed into a major industry in the Persian Gulf. The progression of the diplomatic crisis and the full extent to which air traffic will be disrupted are difficult to predict, but passengers should likely expect delays and cancellations for at least the next several days.

About the Author

Andrew Poure



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