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Airlines Suspend Flights Amidst Diplomatic Crisis in The Middle East

Qatar Airways Suspends Flights

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In what’s being considered the worst diplomatic crisis in the Gulf States in decades, a number of Middle Eastern nations have officially cut ties with Qatar, accusing the nation of supporting terrorist groups and acting to destabilize the region.

Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, The United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Lybia, Yemen, and the Maldives announced on Monday that these countries would sever Qatari relations, with some orders effective immediately.

The Qatari foreign ministry has responded by stating this move is “unjustified” and calling the allegations a “complete fabrication.”  At this time, Kuwait and Oman—the additional members of the Gulf Cooperation Council—have remained neutral.

The process to isolate Qatar from the rest of the Arabian Peninsula includes not only suspending diplomatic relations but also cutting off all land, air, and sea routes into and out of the country. Additionally, an airspace ban is set to go into effect Tuesday.

Chaos has (justifiably) ensued in a number of public realms, most notably airports and supermarkets—Qatar is said to receive a massive percentage of food and goods from outside their borders.

Repercussions in the Aviation Industry

Etihad, Emirates, Fly Dubai, Gulf Air, Air Arabia, and Saudia have each announced a discontinuation of all flights to Qatar beginning Tuesday and lasting for an undetermined amount of time. From each port of departure for these airlines, flights en route to Doha are permitted to operate through the evening of June 5 with a small number departing in the early morning hours of June 6.

These airlines report passengers with scheduled flights to Qatar will be provided with alternative options including refunds on unused tickets or re-booking to the nearest available destination. However, with land and sea traffic also blockaded, it’s unclear how much good this would do.

In response, Qatar Airways has suspended all flights from Qatar to Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt until further notice.

To put things in perspective, The Centre for Aviation reports Saudi Arabia and UAE are the largest source markets for Qatar Airways—bigger even than India. Prior to today’s restrictions, Qatar Airways operated ~25 daily flights to UAE, ~20 flights to Saudi Arabia, ~6 to Bahrain, and ~5 to Egypt.

Alternatively, the number of flights flown by other Gulf State airlines to Qatar is as follows:  Etihad ~4, Emirates ~4, Fly Dubai ~5, Gulf Air ~4, Air Arabia ~1, and Saudia ~2.

While additional factors like aircraft size (and thus seat capacity) play a part in the overall comparison, it’s likely Qatar Airways will suffer the greatest financial loss from these restrictions. That being said, losses to Etihad and Emirates could also be significant depending on the duration of these route closures.

Is an Airspace Ban Legal? 

Map of Gulf Airspace Blocks
Map of Gulf Airspace Blocks. Image courtesy of centreforaviation.com.

The consequences of a regional airspace ban are a bit trickier to determine due to the International Air Services Transit Agreement (IASTA). Bahrain, the UAE, and Egypt are all participants in this agreement and therefore cannot legally prohibit Qatar (also a fellow participant) from overflying the airspace…in theory.

It remains unclear whether these countries will cite extenuating circumstances and claim the transit agreement has been rendered invalid. Furthermore, it is completely possible these countries could take immediate action by restricting routes through specific airspace, or simply break from the agreement by refusing to comply with the regulations in place.

Saudi Arabia is not an IASTA participant and consequently can legally shut Qatar Airways out of its airspace.

Qatar Airways is currently claiming its operational routes to the U.S., Europe, Asia, and Australia should not be affected. However, it is entirely possible that they could be affected pending any actions taken to uphold these airspace bans.

How Long Will This Last?

No one really knows how long this political crisis will last. What we do know is the Qatari economy will certainly incur some significant losses including those resulting from blows to the travel and tourism industry.

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