NEW YORK, NY: June 21, 2016 – Several major airlines began rerouting scheduled flight to avoid the airspace near the Strait of Hormuz. Airlines have made this decision in response to Iran’s downing of a U.S. surveillance drone. The U.S. government issued a warning that commercial airliners could become collateral damage and be attacked by mistake.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, FAA, issued a warning stating that there is a significant “potential for miscalculation or misidentification” in the region following the shooting down of a U.S. Navy RQ-4A surveillance drone. The aircraft, which has a wingspan slightly larger than a Boeing 737, was brought down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile on Thursday.
Following the warning several airlines including British Airways, KLM, Lufthansa, Qantas, Malaysia Airlines, andSingapore Airlines all announced that they would be rerouting flights to avoid the region.
This new warning by the FAA starkly indicates the danger. Previously, the FAA had warned of risk in the region, but now that an aircraft similar in size to the most popular commercial airliner, Boeing’s 737, with many analysts pointing to the shooting down of a Malaysian Airlines flight over the Ukraine in 2014 which resulted in the deaths of 283 passengers and 15 crew.
These route changes could have a significant effect on the bottom lines of several Gulf long-haul carriers, which already have faced challenges under the Trump administration.
“The threat of a civil aircraft shoot-down in southern Iran is real,” warned OPSGROUP, a company which monitors the world’s airspaces for changes and risks which could affect their 5,000+ member airlines, pilots, controllers, and dispatchers.
The FAA made a similar warning in May to commercial airliners of the possibility of Iranian anti-aircraft gunners mistaking them for military aircraft.
Mistakenly misidentifying a passenger jet for a military jet can happen. It occurred in the region 30 years ago. In July, 1988 the U.S. Navy accidentally shot down Iran Air Flight 655 killing all 290 on board. The passenger jet was hit by a SM-2MR surface-to-air missile fired by the USS Vincennes, a U.S. Navy Guided Missile Cruiser. The U.S. vessel fired the missile at the passenger jet thinking it was an Iranian military jet about to attack.
The warning affects the area of the Tehran Flight Information Region. The FAA did not elaborate on the warning and the FAA’s operations center referred all questions to their press office, which has yet to respond to Cruise & Travel Report’s questions. According to flight experts, the area not only includes the Tehran Flight Region, but it likely extends as much as 15 miles off of the Iranian coast
There are “heightened military activities and increased political tensions in the region, which present an inadvertent risk to U.S. civil aviation operations and potential for miscalculation or misidentification,” the FAA said. “The risk to U.S. civil aviation is demonstrated by the Iranian surface-to-air missile shoot-down of a U.S. unmanned aircraft system on 19 June 2019 while it was operating in the vicinity of civil air routes above the Gulf of Oman.”
The Persian Gulf is home to some of the world’s top long-haul carriers, who already have been battered by Trump’s travel bans targeting a group of predominantly Muslim countries, as well as an earlier ban on laptops in airplane cabins for Mideast carriers. Etihad, the Abu Dhabi-based long-haul carrier, said it had “contingency plans” in place, without elaborating.
“We will decide what further action is required after carefully evaluating the FAA directive to U.S. carriers,” the carrier told The Associated Press.
Emirates, the long-haul carrier in Dubai near the Strait of Hormuz, said in a statement to AP that it was “rerouting all flights away from areas of possible conflict.” Its sister airline, the low-cost carrier FlyDubai, said it “adjusted some of the existing flight paths in the region as a precautionary measure.”
Qantas said it would reroute its London flights to avoid the Strait of Hormuz and Gulf of Oman. British Airways, KLM, Malaysia Airlines and Singapore Airlines said their flights would avoid the strait. Lufthansa said it would avoid both the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman, as well as nearby land. However, it said it would continue its flights to Tehran.
Qatar Airways did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Iran said the U.S. drone “violated” its territorial airspace, while the U.S. called the missile fire “an unprovoked attack” in international airspace over the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf. OPSGROUP said the Iranian weapons system that shot down the drone was comparable to the Russian Buk system used in 2014 Malaysian Airlines shoo-tdown in Ukraine.
“Any error in that system could cause it to find another target nearby – another reason not to be anywhere near this part of the Straits of Hormuz,” OPSGROUP said.
The incident immediately heightened the crisis already gripping the wider region, which is rooted in Trump withdrawing the U.S. a year ago from Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal and imposing crippling new sanctions on Tehran. Recently, Iran quadrupled its production of low-enriched uranium to be on pace to break one of the deal’s terms by next week while threatening to raise enrichment closer to weapons-grade levels on July 7 if Europe doesn’t offer it a new deal.
Citing unspecified Iranian threats, the U.S. has sent an aircraft carrier to the Middle East and deployed additional troops alongside the tens of thousands already there. All this has raised fears that a miscalculation or further rise in tensions could push the U.S. and Iran into an open conflict, 40 years after Tehran’s Islamic Revolution.
“We do not have any intention for war with any country, but we are fully ready for war,” Revolutionary Guard commander Gen. Hossein Salami said in a televised address Thursday.