Airlines Extend Middle East Route Diversions and Cancellations

After a tense weekend in the Middle East, airlines are considering what, if any, changes need to be made to their networks and routes. 

On Saturday evening, the airspace above Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Iran was closed or heavily restricted. As well as impacting services to the region, it also affected long-distance journeys that fly over these countries when traveling to other parts of the world. 

By Monday, the situation had stabilized, and the temporary airspace bans were lifted. 

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) said it is “closely monitoring the situation in the Middle East.” However, it emphasized that “there was no overflight risk for civil aviation at any time.”

Not Quite Business As Usual

Many big-name brands were still taking a cautious approach.

On Monday, Virgin Atlantic confirmed to Skift that it has made changes to Indian routes. An additional 30-minute flight time is expected for services to Mumbai and Bengaluru.

“We have been closely following events in the Middle East and have made the decision to temporarily avoid the airspace of Iraq, Iran, and Israel, meaning some Virgin Atlantic passenger services between the UK and India will be adjusted.

“The safety and security of our customers and people is paramount and always will be. We will continue to monitor the situation and apologize for any inconvenience caused to customers by slightly longer flight times,” said a company statement.  

Like many of its peers, Virgin Atlantic has had to respond to a rapidly changing airspace environment over recent days. 

Flight VS354 from London Heathrow to Mumbai was airborne on Saturday night when the initial airspace closure was announced. This required the plane to divert to Istanbul to refuel and take a longer path over the Caspian Sea. The flight arrived at its destination almost five hours behind schedule.

Airspace In Focus

British Airways would not discuss operational matters, citing safety and security reasons. However, analysis of flight tracking platforms suggests that many of its aircraft are flying a northern route over Azerbaijan. Others are taking a more southern path than normal, particularly over Saudi Arabia, to avoid geopolitically sensitive regions.

Qantas Airways, KLM, and Singapore Airlines are among the other major airlines that are currently avoiding Iranian airspace.

The Lufthansa Group said its flights to Lebanon and Iran will remain suspended until at least Thursday. Last week, the company initially adopted a hybrid approach, with Lufthansa canceling its Tehran route but Austrian Airlines continuing to fly, albeit without the usual overnight layover.

Which Airlines are Back in Tel Aviv?

In other developments, British Airways operated from London to Tel Aviv as planned on Monday. Flight BA402 landed in the Israeli city just after 3pm following a brief crew change in Larnaca. The technical stop in Cyprus was added when the route resumed on April 1. This allows greater operational flexibility, with the return flight to Heathrow flying nonstop.

EasyJet is taking a different approach. The low-cost airline has canceled all flights to and from Tel Aviv until April 21, citing the “evolving situation in Israel.” The company said affected customers have been contacted directly with refund and rebooking options. 

Other European airlines to cancel services to Tel Aviv on Monday included KLM, Iberia, Wizz Air, and Aegean. Following the cancellation of its usual service from Warsaw, LOT Polish Airlines told Skift that the company is “constantly monitoring the situation and is in ongoing contact with the authorities.”

KLM said it intends to restart its Tel Aviv route on April 19. Meanwhile, a Virgin Atlantic spokesperson confirmed that its service to the city will remain suspended until September.

United is the only U.S. airline that resumed scheduled flights to Israel before the weekend’s escalation. Its service to Tel Aviv on Monday was canceled, along with its Tuesday departure from Washington D.C. to Amman, Jordan. However, its Newark to Dubai route has resumed.

“We continue to closely monitor the situation and will make decisions on upcoming flights with a focus on the safety of our customers and crews,” United said in a statement.

Airlines Flying Into and Over Iran

Passenger and crew safety is always paramount for airlines. However, the global nature of the aviation industry means individual companies are reacting to the developments in different ways. 

For example, flight tracking services suggest that many Middle Eastern carriers, such as Emirates and Etihad, have resumed flying over Iraq and Iran. Some, such as flydubai and Qatar Airways, have also restarted flights to Iranian cities such as Mashhad.

The largest Middle Eastern carriers have built their business models around smooth transfers at hub airports. Connection times between long-haul flights can be as little as 60 minutes, offering little scope for delay. Iraqi and Iranian airspace is therefore critical for serving many long-haul European and U.S. routes.

An Etihad spokesperson told Skift: “Etihad Airways flights only operate through approved airspace and safety is always our highest priority. Etihad would never operate a flight unless it was safe to do so, and the airline is continuously monitoring security and airspace updates.”

For its part, EASA recommends “exercising caution” when flying in Iran, noting that “there continues to be an increased potential for miscalculation and/or misidentification at present” over the country. 

Airlines are well-versed in navigating restricted or challenging airspace. War, military exercises, and other major events can impact their usual routing. As a result, most carriers have dedicated operations teams who constantly monitor security and geopolitical developments.

Additional reporting by Meghna Maharishi

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