The Middle East serves as a key hub for global air travel, facilitating hundreds of daily flights that connect the US, Europe, and Asia due to its strategic location.
The war between Israel and Hamas, combined with increasing tensions in an already volatile region, has made air travel along those routes more difficult. Airlines have reduced services due to safety concerns arising from these heightened tensions.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine led to the closure of extensive airspace, causing significant delays for transnational flights. This closure, which affected popular routes like the Great Circle routes through Siberia connecting continents, added hours to many journeys.
El Al, Israel’s airline, has altered flight paths by avoiding much of the Arabian peninsula due to safety concerns, resulting in longer routes to destinations like Bangkok. The airline postponed services to India and canceled seasonal routes to Tokyo. Many other airlines ceased flights to Tel Aviv during the conflict, with Lufthansa suspending Beirut flights temporarily. Air France-KLM noted a slight decrease in passenger demand for trips to the region.
Ongoing Israel-Palestine conflicts pose risks for travelers on airlines that pass over conflict zones.
Local conflicts in the Middle East have rendered Yemen, Syria, and Sudan off-limits for most airlines. US and UK carriers steer clear of Iranian airspace, directing long-distance flights westward over Iraq. While the recent conflict hasn’t yet caused significant flight delays through the region, tensions strain the airways over Iran and Iraq. Escalating attacks on US and coalition forces in Iraq and Syria, coupled with Iran’s warning of potential new conflicts due to Israel’s Gaza Strip invasion, intensify concerns over these flight paths.
Potential airspace closures in the Middle East could impact approximately 300 daily flights between Europe and South/Southeast Asia, as noted by aviation analytics firm Cirium. Carriers have alternate routes, albeit costly and not risk-free, such as diverting south over Egypt (resulting in longer flights) or north over recent conflict zones like Armenia and Azerbaijan, followed by navigating around or over Afghanistan.
Effects of Wars on Airline Operation
Anne Agnew Correa, a senior vice president at MBA Aviation, highlighted that a significant airspace closure would pose substantial challenges for airline operations and revenue management teams. Carriers from the European Union, UK, US, and Canada have already faced costly reroutes due to the prohibited Russian airspace on Asian flights. This situation prompted Finnair Oyj to revamp its long-distance strategy, leading to aircraft write-downs due to reduced range capabilities. Additionally, Air France-KLM invested in longer-range A350 jetliners partly to navigate around Russia’s airspace ban.
In 2021, the Federal Aviation Administration estimated that each additional hour of flight for a typical widebody journey incurred an extra cost of approximately US$7,227.
John Gradek, an expert in aviation operations at McGill University, noted that expenses like fuel and labor have risen since then, further adding to these costs.
Carriers like China Eastern Airlines are leveraging their cost advantage and reemerging in the international market.
Chinese carriers have seen growth in seat capacity between China and the UK, surpassing pre-Covid levels. They’ve gained market share from British Airways and Virgin Atlantic Airways. Similar trends are noted in Italy, where Chinese airlines are gaining ground with a 20% increase in capacity.
However, flights from China to Germany, France, and the Netherlands still lag behind 2019 levels by 20% or more, with Chinese carriers gaining share in these markets.
Despite increased frequencies to Shanghai and Beijing, British Airways’ seat volumes to China remain nearly 40% lower than 2019 levels. Overall, IAG SA reported a 54% decline in capacity to the Asia-Pacific region in the third quarter compared to 2019.
Air France-KLM’s CEO, Ben Smith, mentioned on an October 27 call that the airline doesn’t see itself at a disadvantage since many of its corporate clients are hesitant to place their staff on flights crossing Russia to China.
Air India, like Chinese airlines, retains the ability to take more direct routes over Russia to the US and Canada. Despite an emergency landing in eastern Russia due to an engine issue on a flight from New Delhi to San Francisco, Air France-KLM’s CEO, Ben Smith, emphasized that there’s no pressure to fly over Russia for time efficiency. Cirium data shows Air India’s notable resurgence, capturing nearly three-quarters of the India-US flight market and almost two-thirds of the India-Canada market, while Air Canada has lost its prior dominance in 2019.
John Grant, chief analyst at aviation tracker OAG, warns of an escalating risk for the aviation industry due to increased instances of airspace closures. Grant highlights that the current situation presents a world where unintended consequences of such closures are becoming more prevalent, posing a substantial risk to the industry.