Airlines shuffle for position

Attacks on Iraq force airlines to adapt to changing circumstances.

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By  John Irish Published  March 20, 2003

With war breaking out on March 20, airlines have taken a very different approach to the situation. While Arab airlines have continued as normal, other carriers have attempted to take pre-emptive measures.

Following travel advice by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office at the end of February, British Airways (BA) was the first major carrier to reschedule. It initially cancelled all flights to Oman, reduced services to Dubai and announced that it was relocating its cabin crew to Larnaca. For BA the move appeared to be a little premature, as within the space of a week, it announced that it would restore a near normal service by March 30.

“The change in schedule is part of a carefully planned series of measures, which allow British Airways to maintain a smooth and safe operation to the region,” Steve Allen, area manager, Southern Gulf told Arabian Business, when the initial changes took place.
This morning the UK’s national carrier had stopped all flights to Kuwait and Israel, while also reducing services to the Eastern Gulf.

Despite BA taking early initiatives, other European carriers have not immediately followed suit. On the eve of war, both Lufthansa and Air France insisted that schedules to the Gulf would remain the same, until airspace was either closed or until the International Aviation Organisation (IATO) decided to alter flight paths. Following the U.S. strikes on Baghdad overnight, Lufthansa, however, did cancel its services for two days to Tel Aviv, Amman and Kuwait City.

Cyprus Airways, which announced an 8.4% increase in passengers to the Middle East last week (March 09), suspended all its flights to the Gulf until Sunday. The Dutch carrier, KLM likewise reduced services to the Gulf and cancelled scheduled flights to Kuwait, Israel and Jordan.

Arab airlines have changed schedules depending on their proximity to the conflict zone. Naturally, carriers operating from countries bordering Iraq have been worse hit. Kuwait Airways has suspended flights to the Levant from March 23 because of unspecified changes to the airspace allocated to commercial carriers. Royal Jordanian Airlines said that it would be forced to reduce services into the region, but that it would continue to serve a ‘major portion of its’ worldwide destinations.

In the Gulf, things were very much business as usual this morning. Local operators such as Emirates Airlines, Gulf Air and Qatar Airways were continuing to fly, adopting a wait and see attitude.

“We have no plans to change our flight schedule or routes, and it is business as usual, subject of course to developments in the region, which are monitored around the clock,” said James Hogan, president and chief executive of Gulf Air.

In Qatar, where the US has set up its command and control headquarters at As-Saliyah base, 15 km outside Doha, the Civil Aviation Authorities claimed that the emirate’s airspace would remain open during any conflict in the region.

“I can assure that we will not close the airport and that the air space will stay open,” said Abdelaziz Neimi, Qatar’s civil aviation director. That view was shared by Qatar Airways’ chief executive, Akbar Al Baker, who claimed that the airline had been co-ordinating the use of air corridors over Qatar with the US military operating in the Gulf Arab state.

“Qatar Airways will also continue with its normal schedule of flights to Europe, the Middle East, the Indian sub-continent and the Far East,” said Al Baker.

Services from the Far East were also affected. Both Cathay Pacific and Thai Airways announced on March 18 that flights to Bahrain, Kuwait and Riyadh would be suspended, but that their remaining services to the Gulf would continue. However, the Thai airline indicated that if the military conflict worsened, it planned to switch its Asia-Europe flights to alternative routes to avoid the Kuwait-Iraq zone. Singapore Airlines also cut weekly services to Dubai from 10 to 7 due to a fall in bookings. It added that cargo flights would be reduced so that passenger aircraft could carry more fuel should routes be diverted.

While, so far the measures have been limited, the next few days may see more airlines forced into cancellations and rescheduling. According to aviation authorities, contingency plans were made several weeks ago, but travellers in the Persian Gulf area, however, should expect added flight times when re-routed.

“Aircraft are being re-routed around the conflict zone in accordance with air route contingency plans that were developed and agreed by IATA, ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organisation) and national governments in advance. These plans have been coordinated with the national authorities concerned. For flights to and from Persian Gulf destinations, pre-determined temporary routes will divert flights well away from any military activity,” said Giovanni Bisignani, IATA director general.

As the conflict in the Gulf unfolds, an IATA task force will be monitoring the situation 24 hours a day, updating contingency plans as things develop. Its activities are fully coordinated with ICAO and the different national governments involved.

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