How closed skies impact airlines and travellers

When a country closes its airspace, the ramifications for aviation are far and wide. Ashwini Phadnis reports

India’s air strike on a militant camp in Balakot in Pakistan, in retaliation to 40 CRPF personnel being killed in Pulwama in Jammu and Kashmir, has had ramifications in a somewhat unexpected quarter — the world aviation industry. After the airstrike, Pakistani authorities closed the country’s airspace to aircraft flying over it, to and from India.

More than two months later, Pakistan has opened two of the 12 entry points. Pilots point out that Indian carriers are using one exit route but “for coming back we are still avoiding Pakistan airspace as the Indian government has not opened two entry points into India.” Pilots can use these two entry points opened by Pakistan only if the Indian airspace, which they enter soon after flying over Pakistan, is also open.

Hence, even now, flights to and from India flying west (the Gulf region and others going onwards to Europe and America) are flying longer distances to circumvent Pakistani airspace, adding time — and costs — to their operations, not to mention the inconvenience caused to the flying public.

Closure of the airspace also means that all international carriers that fly to and from India have had to reschedule their flights as have Indian carriers. For instance, Air India’s Delhi-Vienna flight is now 11 hours long (from the seven hours earlier).

Flying longer distances means that more crew are required. When the airspace is open, the flight can be operated with one set of crew, but the increased time means that three crew sets or two captains and one co-pilot are required. Flights are also stopping for refuelling en route.

What also complicates matters is that India is surrounded by the Himalayas in the north. The closure of Pakistani airspace hampers normal flight operations as it is difficult to fly over the mountain range.

Explaining how airlines determine their routes, a pilot says that, globally, commercial airlines generally fly from east to west. All airlines look to fly a straight route so that they can save fuel. However, for this to be possible, the airspace over a country, which is the sovereign right of that country, has to be open and, more importantly, be safe to fly over.

Every country marks out several entry and exit points for various airlines to use. When these entry and exit points are shut, airlines need to consider alternative routes, which involve flying longer or stopping at an intermediate point before reaching their final destinations.

Not an isolated incident

The closure of Pakistani airspace is not an isolated incident in global aviation as there have been many other instances when countries have banned flights over their airspace. There are many reasons for this closure of airspace. Some of them are obviously political. Similar to the closure of Pakistani airspace after the Balakot airstrike, Russia too closed its airspace for political reasons during the Cold War, making it difficult for American flights to operate to India.

Pilots and airlines also avoid conflict zones to ensure safety of their flights. Recall what happened to the Malaysian Airlines flight flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur in 2014. The aircraft disappeared from the radar over conflict-hit Ukraine. The plane was said to have been brought down by a missile, killing all 283 passengers, including 80 children and 35 crew members on board. Commercial airlines still continue to avoid this airspace.

According to an Indian pilot with over 25,000 hours of flying experience, among the regions that airlines avoid flying over are Ukraine, Iraq and Syria because they are conflict zones. Earlier, parts of the Afghanistan airspace were also shut to allow American jets to carry out their duties in Afghanistan, according to some pilots. This airspace is largely open now.

Terrorism is another significant reason why airspace is shut. The case in point here is the US closing its airspace for all flights after the terror attacks in the country on September 11, 2001. Pilots call this the most dramatic closure of airspace.

“Till today, the US President and generals have the authority to shoot down any commercial aircraft if it has been hijacked,” says a former pilot.

The closure of American airspace had a cascading effect as between the time that the attacks on the twin towers and other installations in the US happened, and the time the closure of the airspace was announced, there were several aircraft flying to various points in the US. All of them were rerouted.

So dramatic was this airspace closure that Lufthansa named one of its Airbus A-340-300 aircraft Gander Halifax. This was the airline’s way of showing its gratitude to the people of Halifax in Canada who took care of the crew stranded there after the US airspace was shut.

Natural disasters too can lead to closure of airspace. In the recent past, volcanic activity in and around Indonesia led to the closure of its airspace. Many still remember the closure of some parts of the European airspace when the Grimsvotn volcano in Iceland erupted, spewing volcanic ash. Though the airports remained opened, airlines halted flights amid safety concerns at the high density of the ash because of the volcanic eruption.

Benefits of an open airspace

India has been the beneficiary of the opening of the Middle Eastern airspace as this allowed Air India to become the only airline globally to operate on this route while flying between Tel Aviv and Delhi. EL AL, the Israeli airline which is the only other airline to fly between India and Israel, has not been allowed to fly through the Middle East and has to take a longer route, which makes its flight longer by about two hours as compared to Air India’s flight.

Likewise, the end of the Cold War saw a small part of the Russian airspace being opened up. This provided a window of opportunity for US carriers to consider flying non-stop between continental US and India. The opening of this airspace cut the flying time by a few minutes, which was all that was required to launch the flight.

Published on April 30, 2019

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