The heightened tensions with Iran are bad for peace in the region, especially if you're prone to air rage and facing the threat of rising airfares, longer flights and more delays - it's enough to fray even the mildest of tempers
June saw a lot of discussion about the region’s airspace, to the extent I’ll bet it nearly overtook property prices and rents as the main topics of conversation at Dubai watercoolers.
The UAE Civil Aviation Authority ordered airlines to avoid risky airspace, with Emirates, Flydubai, Etihad Airways, Air Arabia, Saudi Arabian Airlines and Bahrain’s Gulf Air all deciding to not fly through Iranian airspace near the Strait of Hormuz and Gulf of Oman.
The US Federal Aviation Authority completely barred American carriers from flying over Iran altogether, after the US blamed Tehran for the attacks on six tankers in the Gulf and the shooting down of an American drone.
Many reports have outlined how this will result in airfares going up by as much as $400, flights getting longer and delays becoming commonplace. However, the issue of airspace over the UAE is a lot more multi-layered, and has a lot of difficult factors at play.
I should know, I spent about six months researching the UAE’s congested airspace back in 2015. Some things have improved, such as Oman upgrading its airspace technology, making southbound flights quicker, but the issue is still as complicated as ever.
Firstly, the decision to stop flying over Iranian airspace will hit the Tehran regime where it hurts: revenue. And this is at a time when it has already being hit by the drop in oil revenues and US President Donald Trump’s decision to impose even more economic sanctions on the country.
“Iran is three or four times more expensive,” an industry source told me back in 2015 when I asked how much various countries in the region charge for using their airspace. The expert estimated at the time that Iran accounted for about 40 percent of Gulf carriers’ spending on airspace access fees. “Iran is doing very nicely out of the closure of Iraqi airspace,” the insider said.
At a time when global economies are facing challenging times and oil prices are low, don’t be surprised if traditional supply and demand principles and basic capitalist forces start kicking in soon.
Who’s to say some countries in the region won’t take advantage of the situation and start demanding more for entry to their airspace, in the same way Iran took advantage of the situation when commercial airlines had to stop flying over Syria and Iraq four years ago?
The second issue relates to military activity. In May, the US Navy announced that GCC countries had “commenced enhanced security patrols” in international waters around the region. It’s likely this is also the same in the sky, meaning commercial planes are squeezed even more.
Only about 40 percent of UAE airspace is accessible to civilian aircraft, with the remaining 60 percent reserved for military jet fighters.
Tony Tyler, former director general of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), complained about how this was impacting growth.
“We are trying to squeeze the fast-growing civil aviation component into a fraction of the airspace,” he said. “One solution is to develop partnerships and trust with the military to open more flexible-use zones. That is happening progressively — but it is not keeping pace with demand for air travel.”
Some experts a few years ago told me there were steps being made to let more commercial aircraft into military airspace, but at present, with heightened tensions, this is probably not a high priority anymore or a smart security move.
Another potential geopolitical issue to watch is India. A lot of Gulf traffic eventually heads over India, but Indian airspace is less sophisticated and slower to manoeuvre through due to safety and technical constraints.
“India and Pakistan airspace is already stressed on account of socio-political tension between the two states,” one expert told me, pointing out that any escalation in the India/Pakistan situation at the same time as the Iranian issue would be a massive headache for flight planners in the UAE.
Ali Ahmed Alnaqbi, chairman of the Middle East & North Africa Business Aviation Association, told me the solution to the congestion problem is to get a private jet. All very well for some, but until that day happens, I think we will all just have to get used to the likelihood of longer flights, more expensive airfares and increased delays, as aircraft circle the congested airspace above us. Even more reason to solve the current impasse with Iran I think you’ll agree.