Qatar Airways Resumes Flying Through Syrian Airspace

Last week we saw reports that, after eight long years, Syria had re-opened its airspace to Qatar Airways. When the civil war in Syria broke out in 2011, airlines stopped flying over the country and instead went over neighboring countries. These detours lengthen flight times and consume more fuel, presenting higher costs to airlines. Now the request of Qatar Airways to fly over the country has been approved by the Syrian Government. This comes shortly after a visit to Damascus by Iraqi National Security Adviser Faleh Al Fayyad, who reportedly carried messages from Doha to Damascus the previous week.

Qatar 777
A Qatar Airways Boeing 777 Source: Wikimedia Commons

A break for Qatar

Qatar and its flag carrier haven’t had it easy in the last few years. In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt and several other Arab nations imposed a land and sea blockade. Qatar Airways was also banned from flying over Saudi and Bahraini airspace. The aim of this blockade was to punish Qatar for its alleged support of Sunni Islamist terrorism and Iranian influence in the region.

Since the initial shock of the coordinated blockade, we see that it failed cripple the Qatari economy as expected. On the contrary, the country’s vast wealth was able to provide a cushion to the harsh impact of the blockade. Qatar accessed some of its $340 billion in reserve funding to establish new trading partners and build its domestic industries. However, while the country has proven itself resilient, Qatar Airways has suffered due to “longer flying time and loss of departing seats from the blockading countries”. Qatar Airways CEO Akbar al-Baker said in a statement following the release of its 2017 Annual Report:

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This turbulent year has inevitably had an impact on our financial results, which reflect the negative effect the illegal blockade has had on our airline … We have not capitulated, we have not given in to any demands…We have continued our growth and Qatar has continued investments.

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Qatar A350
A Qatar Airways Airbus A350 Source: Flickr – spencer_wilmot

Significant time and fuel savings

With an airspace blockade still in effect with Saudi Arabia, Qatar Airways will benefit significantly from this development in Syria. Let’s use a real-world scenario to look at the results:

QR256 from Doha to Larnaca, Cyprus: On April 23rd the flight lasted 3 hours and 46 minutes. On the other hand, this mornings’ journey on April 28th was cut down to 3 hours flat. This single route occurs daily in addition to numerous other routes taking the same direction. Considering all of these flights, this means significant time and money savings for Qatar Airways.

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QR256
Flight QR256 on April 23rd. Notice the diversion around Syrian airspace Source: Flightradar24

 

Flight QR256 on April 28th. Finally allowed to fly over Syria Source: Flightradar24

Of course the move isn’t purely altruistic on Syria’s side. The country will also benefit from allowing Qatar Airways to fly through its airspace in the form of overflight fees. These are fees an airline must pay for the right to fly through its airspace. We don’t know the exact cost or formula charged by Syria but a list compiled by Jetex notes that for aircraft weighing 76 metric tons or more, “a rate per metric ton is assessed”.

Moving forward

It will be interesting to see if any other airlines will seek and gain permission to fly over the country. We’ve also written an article about more commercial air service returning to Syria. But more importantly, it’s clear that the conflict in Syria is not completely finished.  There are still risks to consider when flying over an active war zone. In fact, on April 17th, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) extended the validity of the conflict zone warnings for Syria to October 25th 2019:

Due to the remaining hazardous security situation, with the presence of terrorist organisations and ongoing military operations, there is a risk of both intentional targeting and misidentification of civil aircraft. The presence of a wide range of ground-to-ground and dedicated anti-aviation weaponry poses a HIGH risk to operations at all flight altitudes.

Syrian Conflict
A Syrian man reacts while standing on the rubble of his house. Others look for survivors and bodies Source: Flickr – Pablo Tosco

What do you think about all of this? Given the official EASA warning and considering what happened to MH17 in 2014, is Qatar Airways being irresponsible in flying over Syria? Would you take the risk yourself?

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Nigel

I think it’s asking for trouble. It would be a great publicity coup for IS (or what’s left of it) if they could take down a civilian jetliner with a missile. Websites like Flightaware make it easier for terrorists to see/predict the route that will be followed by an aircraft…so it’s basically inviting the wolf to the door. It seems that MH17 has been forgotton rather quickly…

Anton Schiere

I completely agree with @Nigel
This isn’t a wise Quatar management decision.
It certainly will harm their Doha – west flight business, no one wants to bring him/her self in a now clearly known risky situation.

Moreover and for Quatars business wise more impactful, it will stigmata Quatar as an safety risks ignoring, in favour of their own benefits, company.
So let’s hope this budget driven decision will not cause a and foreseeable tremendous air disaster.

Nigel

The more I think about this, the more outrageous it becomes! I can still see those images of countless coffins being transported through The Netherlands after MH17. If EASA has the power to do so, then it should mandate that any Qatar flight originating in or departing from Europe should not be allowed to overfly the Syria exclusion zone. Australia — which also lost a large number of citizens in MH17 — should also speak up. It’s hard to believe that an ultra-perfectionist like Qatar’s Ali Al Baker would put the reputation of his airline in such peril.

Nigel
Oliver

Bull…t… MEA and Iraqi Airways have never stopped overflying Syria and never encountered any issues.

Raphael

You are overly exaggerating the danger of overflying Syrian territory. The only reason why other airlines don’t overfly Syria is purely political. Also, there is not a single similarity between Syria and Ukraine in terms of jeopardy toward the high flying aircraft because any suspicious group that still exists on Syrian soil simply doesn’t have the ability to bring the aircraft down. The only logical comparison with Syria would be Afghanistan. Of course, nobody talks about dangers of overflying Afghanistan. Political reasons, aren’t they? So far, decision made by Qatar Airways brings them sensible savings and the planes experience great… Read more »