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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - KUWAIT CITY: Gulf airlines still fly in Iraqi and Iranian airspace and to cities in both countries, even as other international carriers have rerouted planes since the US and Iran traded military strikes.
Executives and analysts said carriers in the Gulf, a major transit stop between European and Asian destinations, have few alternative routes to choose from in an area where much of the airspace is kept clear of civilian aircraft for military use.
In the latest flare up, a US drone strike killed a top general in Iraq on Jan. 3 and Iran fired missiles at US targets in Iraq on Jan. 8. In the tense aftermath, Iran’s air defenses accidentally shot down a Ukrainian airliner.
Gulf carriers have grown into major airlines even as regional tensions in recent decades erupted into conflict. Rerouting flights hurts profits, they say, although they also insist that they take every precaution to keep passengers safe.
“Iranian airspace is important for all carriers in this region,” said Adil Al-Ghaith, Emirates’ senior vice president, commercial operations, Gulf, Middle East and Iran.
Dubai-based Emirates and sister carrier flydubai together serve 10 cities in Iran and Iraq, and have continued to use the airspace of both countries for other flights.
Kuwait Airways and Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways have continued using Iranian and Iraqi airspace.
At the same time, other international carriers have rerouted flights to avoid Iraq and Iran, including Lufthansa, Air France, Singapore Airlines and Qantas.
Some regional carriers have also rerouted changed their routes. Bahrain’s Gulf Air has redirected European flights away from Iraqi airspace and now flies longer, more fuel consuming routes over Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
“We want to take the safest option even if it costs us a little bit more for a period of time. We can live with that,” Gulf Air Deputy Chief Executive Waleed Abdulhameed Al-Alawi told Reuters.
The UAE told Emirates, Etihad, flydubai and Air Arabia this month to “evaluate flight path risks” although it said it was up to the airlines to make the final decision on the routes they chose.
“Gulf carriers face a big challenge but that doesn’t mean that risks can be taken — even if that inflicts damage on the business model,” independent aviation consultant John Strickland said.
Ukrainian International Airlines flight 752 was shot down in error after taking off from Tehran on Jan. 8, killing all 176 people aboard. Iran said on Saturday it was sending the flight’s black boxes to Ukraine.
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