Please note that this is an ongoing situation, subject to change rapidly.
The Persian Gulf region is a vital corridor for global air travel, and recent incidents involving Iran, including the June 20 downing of a US drone, have increased the threat facing commercial aviation in the region. Numerous major airlines are now avoiding flights over the northern portion of the Persian Gulf. While the current threat level to commercial aviation in the Persian Gulf region does not warrant travelers avoiding flights to or through the region as a whole, the current tensions could escalate quickly in a manner that would make air travel in the region unsafe. Travelers and companies should monitor developments and prepare contingency plans to route air travelers away from the region.
Air Travel in the Persian Gulf Region
The tensions between Iran and the US and its allies are not currently causing significant disruptions to air travel in the Persian Gulf region. Numerous major airlines are avoiding flights over the portions of the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman closest to Iran, but are continuing to fly over the rest of the Persian Gulf and Iran itself regularly. On June 20, US authorities prohibited US operators and pilots from flying over Iranian-controlled portions of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman but have not prohibited flights over Iran itself.
The Persian Gulf region is vital for global air travel. The region is home to major hubs in Dubai (DXB), Doha (DOH), and Abu Dhabi (AUH), which are home to Emirates (EK), Qatar Airways (QR), and Etihad Airways (EY) respectively. Aside from serving their local markets, these airports are major hubs for connecting traffic, especially travelers flying from Europe to the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and Australia. Nonstop flights from Europe to India and Southeast Asia also typically fly over the Persian Gulf region.
On June 20, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) prohibiting flights over the overwater portions of the Tehran Flight Information Region (FIR) in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman, which roughly corresponds to Iranian airspace over these bodies of water. The NOTAM was a response to Iran shooting down a US drone earlier June 20 over the Strait of Hormuz. The FAA had previously issued a NOTAM in May 2019 stating that US pilots and operators should “exercise caution” in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman region due to increasing tensions surrounding Iran. The FAA has had a similar cautionary NOTAM regarding airspace over Iran itself for over five years.
Following the drone incident, numerous major carriers have announced that they will avoid flights over certain parts of the Persian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz, and the Gulf of Oman. The exact details of each airline’s policies differ, but they generally correspond to the US NOTAM. Most of the airlines in question are continuing to fly over the southern Persian Gulf or Iran itself. Notable exceptions to this trend include Qatar Airways, Emirates, and FlyDubai (FZ).
Potential Threats to Airliners
The current tensions in the Persian Gulf region pose a low threat to air travelers in the region, but the threat level could increase quickly should Iran continue to use high-altitude surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) near busy airspace. Neither the US and its allies nor Iran have a motivation to attack commercial aviation, but the use of high-altitude SAMs in the region increases the likelihood of a commercial airliner being accidentally targeted. The Iranian-backed al-Houthi group in Yemen also poses a threat to air travelers in southwestern Saudi Arabia. Iran also likely possesses the capability to target the commercial aviation industry with disruptive nonlethal actions such as cyberattacks on airline or airport computer systems.
Neither Iran nor the US is likely to deliberately target the commercial aviation industry as tensions escalate in the region. Iran has so far avoided taking any actions in the current crisis that would cause civilian casualties, as such an action would greatly increase the chance of military retaliation against Iran. While Iranian-backed terrorist organizations have targeted commercial airliners in the past, they have not carried out any notable attacks against commercial aviation in the past three decades.
The threat of an accidental attack on a commercial airliner remains low but could quickly increase if Iran continues to target US drones with SAMs. While Iran had previously fired low-altitude man-portable air defense system (MANPADS) missiles at US drones, the June 20 downing of a larger US drone marked Iran’s first recent use of high-altitude SAMs in the region. MANPADS pose relatively little threat to passing airliners, as they are unable to reach airliners’ cruising altitudes, but high-altitude SAMs have previously shot down commercial airliners by mistake, including Malaysia Airlines (MH) Flight MH-17 during the eastern Ukraine conflict in 2014, Siberia Airlines (S7) Flight S7-1812 during a Ukrainian military exercise over the Black Sea in 2001, and Iran Air (IR) Flight IR-655 during a naval clash involving the US Navy during the Iran-Iraq War in 1988.
Iran’s use of high-altitude SAMs near busy airspace in the Persian Gulf increases the threat to nearby airliners. As detailed above, several major airlines have taken steps to keep their aircraft away from Iranian airspace or Iran’s borders, which are the most likely areas for any future incidents. These moves are a positive development from a safety perspective, but are not a guarantee against incidents; the missile that shot down the Siberia Airlines flight in 2001 was approximately 250 km (160 miles) off course; the Persian Gulf is narrower than this at most points. While a US drone being shot down does not warrant travelers avoiding flights to or over the Persian Gulf region as a whole, further use of high-altitude SAMs could warrant doing so. Travelers and airlines should closely monitor developments in the region and prepare contingency plans to route travelers away from the region.
Iran could attempt to disrupt air traffic in the Persian Gulf region or elsewhere through a cyberattack or other nonlethal actions. While no organization is known to have the ability to take over a commercial airliner via cyberattack, Iran almost certainly has the capability to disrupt computer systems at airlines, airports, and air traffic control agencies in the region. Such cyberattacks would be highly unlikely to pose a security threat to travelers, but could severely disrupt operations at a major airline or airport.
The lone area where the current level of conflict involving Iran could pose a threat to air travelers is in southern Saudi Arabia near the country’s border with Yemen. Iranian-backed al-Houthi groups have allegedly targeted Saudi airports on multiple occasions with drones and ballistic missiles. Saudi air defenses have thwarted most of these attacks. Al-Houthi sources also claim to have struck AUH with a drone in July 2018, which Emirati sources deny. In June 2019 an al-Houthi missile allegedly hit the terminal of Abha International Airport (AHB) in southwestern Saudi Arabia, injuring 26 people. Al-Houthi sources say they have since carried out further attacks against AHB that did not cause casualties, and Saudi authorities say they have shot down drones targeting Jizan Regional Airport (GIZ). Further attacks against AHB, GIZ, and other airports in southwestern Saudi Arabia are likely and could cause traveler fatalities. Fatal al-Houthi attacks against major hubs in Saudi Arabia or the UAE are unlikely.
An extended version of this article will appear in the upcoming issue of WorldAware’s Airline Safety Newsletter.
WorldAware, Inc. provides intelligence-driven, integrated risk management solutions that enable multinational organizations to operate globally with confidence. WorldAware’s end-to-end, tailored solutions integrate world-class threat intelligence, innovative technology, and response services to help organizations avoid threats, mitigate risk and protect their people, assets, and reputation.