FAA Bars U.S. Airlines From Flying Over Iraq Rebel Fighting

Aug 08, 2014 3:06 pm ET

(Updates with consultant’s comments in fourth paragraph.)

Aug. 8 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. instructed its commercial airlines not to fly over Iraq as American warplanes begin airstrikes on militants who have conquered swaths of the nation.

The restriction on flights at any altitude will be reassessed by Dec. 31, according to a notice issued today by the Federal Aviation Administration. Under a July 31 notice, airlines under the FAA’s jurisdiction were only allowed to pass over the area at 30,000 feet (9,100 meters) or higher.

The action is at least the third formal flight ban for U.S. carriers in foreign airspace since last month’s missile strike on Malaysian Airline System Bhd.’s Flight 17 over Ukraine. A pileup of closures, warnings and voluntary reroutings in nations including Iraq, Israel, Syria and Russia is forcing carriers to take longer flight paths, burning more fuel and time.

“You’re kind of knitting together a group of off-limits airspace that makes it more expensive to fly around them,” Robert Mann, president of aviation consultant R.W. Mann & Co. in Port Washington, New York, said in an interview. “At some point, the economics of the routes will change such that carriers will change prices or decline to fly them all together.”

Just yesterday, United Airlines, Delta Air Lines Inc. and United Parcel Service Inc. said they were weighing options after Russia threatened to cut off polar routes for North American and European airlines. That move was broached as a possible response to sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine shoot-down.

The flight ban for Iraq was prompted by “the potentially hazardous situation created by the armed conflict” in Iraq, the FAA said in its Notice to Airmen.

Routes Closed

President Barack Obama yesterday authorized limited strikes against militants from the group called Islamic State in Iraq, pushing the U.S. back into a conflict three years after its last combat troops left. The U.S. military bombed a militant artillery piece near Erbil today, according to the Pentagon.

U.S. airlines will follow the FAA’s orders, Victoria Day, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based trade group Airlines for America, said today in an e-mailed statement. The Iraq ban doesn’t affect any flights by package shipper FedEx Corp., Jim McCluskey, a spokesman for the company, said in an e-mail.

Closing Iraqi airspace is the latest disruption to international routes between North America, Europe and Asia.

Undermining Confidence

The FAA along with European nations closed a popular airway over eastern Ukraine after the Malaysia Airlines flight was hit by a surface-to-air missile on July 17, killing all 298 people aboard. The U.S. government has said the missile was fired from a rebel-controlled area in eastern Ukraine.

The FAA halted U.S. flights to Israel July 22 after a rocket landed within a mile of Ben Gurion International airport. The ban was lifted late the next day after Israel presented evidence its missile-defense system provided adequate protections to the airport.

If such closures continue, it may begin to undermine the confidence passengers have in airline travel, Mann said.

“Why put yourself in a position of flying over conflict regions?” he said. “A whole series of very sophisticated weapons are apparently now in the hands of people who would do harm with them. That just changes the game entirely.”

--With assistance from Mary Schlangenstein in Dallas.