Airlines clear skies over Syria amid threat of missile strikes

12:39 • 13.04.18



Airlines are avoiding Syrian airspace as the United States and other Western powers consider their response to a suspected chemical attack near Damascus last weekend.


The European Aviation Safety Agency, a European Union organization, issued an alert on Tuesday, prompting a number of airlines to steer away from the country’s airspace.


“Due to the possible launch of airstrikes into Syria,” the agency said, “due consideration needs to be taken when planning flight operations.” The alert cited the possible use of air-to-ground and cruise missiles and the likely disruption of radio navigation equipment, the New York Times reports.


The agency’s alert was transmitted by a system called Eurocontrol, which acts as the air traffic controller for the Continent. A spokesman for Eurocontrol said Thursday that the warning was not mandatory. “The notification was more of advice to the airlines, rather than instructions,” said the spokesman, who in line with agency protocol declined to be identified.


Many airlines decided not to take any chances. On Thursday, the sky over Syria was largely empty of commercial aircraft, creating a conspicuous hole in the otherwise busy airspace of the Middle East.


Air France and easyJet have rerouted flights, Reuters reported, and a spokeswoman for Lufthansa said that all airlines in the German group “have been avoiding part of the airspace referred to in the warning, including Syria, for some time now.” British Airways declined to comment.


Federal Aviation Administration rules already prohibited American airlines from flying over Syria, but carriers outside Europe also reacted to the Eurocontrol warning.


Kuwait Airways announced on Twitter on Thursday that it would not operate any flights to Beirut and would avoid the airspace around Lebanon, which includes Syria.


Middle East Airlines, the Lebanese flag carrier, issued a statement on Wednesday announcing the rescheduling of some of its flights until Friday evening.


“Due to the recent security situation between U.S. and Syria, and as a precautionary measure,” the airline said, “Middle East Airlines will be modifying the routing of some of its flights, which will affect their departure times.”


The Eurocontrol spokesman said such alerts were not uncommon. For example, he said, “a few years ago, there was a warning about Russia firing missiles from naval assets in the Caspian Sea.”


The downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine in 2014 was a grim reminder of the risks to commercial jets flying into conflict zones. The Boeing 777 plane, which had been bound for Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, from Amsterdam, was hit by a surface-to-air missile, and all 298 people onboard were killed.

 

An international team of prosecutors concluded that a surface-to-air missile system used to shoot down the jetliner came from Russian territory and was returned to Russia afterward. Investigators also faulted the Ukrainian government for having failed to close the airspace over the battle zone to civil aviation.





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