Just before midnight on Monday, the last American soldier strode onto a McDonnell Douglas/Boeing C-17 Globemaster III at Hamid Karzai International Airport. As the plane took off, it brought an end to the longest war in US history. For the first time in nearly 20 years, there are no American troops in Afghanistan. Nor is there currently anyone in control of Afghanistan’s airspace.
Over the past two weeks, US forces have guarded the airport in Kabul with nearly 6,000 soldiers. As part of the US efforts, over 114,000 people have been airlifted out of Afghanistan during the same time period.
The Taliban are reportedly in talks with governments such as Qatar and Turkey to be able to restart civilian flight operations from Kabul. Meanwhile, Turkey, which as part of the NATO mission has been responsible for the security at the airport for the past six years, says that repairs need to be made at the airport before it can reopen for civilian flight.
The FAA bans US operators from overflights
However, this is not the only implication for air traffic in, out, and even above Afghanistan. Following the withdrawal of the US and its allied forces, Afghanistan’s airspace is left uncontrolled. The latest NOTAM (notice to airmen) for the OAKX/Kabul FIR advises that overflying traffic should route around the country, apart from overflights to the far east. As simplified by Safe Airspace, the NOTAM from August 31st reads,
“Due to lack of ATS and widespread militant activity, US operators are now banned from the OAKX/Kabul FIR with very limited exceptions. Flights to and from OAKB/Kabul airport are no longer exempt from the ban. Airways P500 and G500 may still be used for overflights. Any other aircraft wishing to enter Afghan airspace must do so with the permission of the state and FAA, unless experiencing an emergency.”
Risks posed by surface-to-air missiles
The civil aviation authorities of several western countries have also previously banned operators from flying over Afghanistan, at least below flight levels of 25,000 feet. Flight routes most affected are those between Europe and Asia.
The primary risks are considered direct and indirect fire targeting airports and surface-to-air missiles endangering passenger planes. There is also a concern regarding potential misidentification from neighboring air forces on high alert due to the volatile situation in the region.
Furthermore, Kabul Airport has been left without any Air Traffic Control (ATC). On August 16th, the civilian side of the airport was first closed as crowds of people breached the area attempting to escape the country. The side was reopened two days later on a very limited basis.
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United efforts relying on VFR
Evacuation flights operating over the past two weeks have had to rely on VFR to land at Kabul. The Pentagon commandeered 18 civilian planes under the umbrella of the CRAF for the airlift effort – four from United Airlines, three each from American Airlines, Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines, and Omni Air, and two from Hawaiian Airlines.
Other carriers such as Alaska Airlines and Southwest have agreed to transfer evacuees and refugees onwards domestically from Washington D.C. The activity with incoming flights has caused backups at Dulles International Airport. As such, Philadelphia International Airport has now opened up to receive international flights supporting the evacuation efforts.