British Airways to continue flying over Iraq

Business reporter Theo Leggett explains why airlines differ over Iraq flight safety

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British Airways flights will continue to fly over Iraq despite concerns over the threat of Islamic militants on the ground, its chief executive has said.

Willie Walsh told the Financial Times: "We fly over Iraq because we consider it safe. If we thought Iraq was unsafe we would not fly over Iraq."

Qantas has become the latest airline to say it will divert planes to avoid flying through Iraqi airspace.

BA said it would be reviewing its decision on a daily basis.

The airline said flights from the UK to destinations including Dubai and Doha would normally cross Iraqi airspace.

Fresh focus

"Our flight plans vary depending on a number of factors but our highest and first priority is always the safety of our crew and customers," BA said in a statement.

Mr Walsh told the FT some customers would find it "confusing" that airlines had taken different positions on Iraq.

But he said airlines should be able to carry out their own risk assessments about flying over warzones because they had different operations and aircraft.

There is fresh focus on the routes taken by airlines following the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine last month.

British Airways has been avoiding the airspace over eastern Ukraine for several months.

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MH17 plane debris (17 July 2014)
Analysis: Theo Leggett, Business reporter, BBC News

The loss of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 has focused attention on the decisions made by carriers when it comes to flying over conflict zones.

Safety is always a top priority. No reputable airline would knowingly put the lives of its passengers in danger.

That said, diverting aircraft around a particular country can take longer and use more fuel, depending on the route taken and the weather conditions. Ultimately, that costs money.

Unless regulators step in, it is up to the airlines themselves to analyse the risks and decide whether a diversion is justified, based on their own information and the advice they receive.

Sometimes, they come to different decisions. However, after MH17 there will be a greater emphasis on caution than ever before.

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Sovereign rights

On Thursday, America's Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) told US airlines to fly above 30,000ft (9.1km) over Iraq.

It had previously told them to fly above 20,000ft (6.1km).

Australian airline Qantas said in a statement on Saturday it had "closely monitored the issue of flight paths over conflict zones, particularly in light of the MH17 tragedy, with safety our first priority".

It said it had "no new information that alters our safety assessment of flying over Iraq, especially given the altitudes we maintain over this region".

"However, given the various restrictions imposed by different governments in the past 24 hours, including by the United States' FAA, Qantas has temporarily rerouted its flights within the Middle East to avoid Iraqi airspace.

"The flight path adjustment applies to services between Dubai and London and is not expected to significantly increase flight times on this route."

Start Quote

I think we have something of a cobweb approach to the management of safe airspace ”

End Quote John Strickland Independent aviation consultant

On Friday, German airline Lufthansa suspended flights over the country.

Others, including Emirates Air Line, Virgin Atlantic and Air France, began diverting flights earlier this week.

Virgin confirmed in a statement it was "not currently flying" over Iraq, adding "safety and security is our top priority".

Militants with the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (Isis) group have captured large areas of northern and western Iraq, including the country's second-largest city, Mosul.

This week, independent aviation consultant John Strickland told BBC Two's Newsnight there was "a cobweb approach to the management of safe airspace".

Governments had "sovereign rights to close airspace above their territories", he added.

"Governments, whether its their own airspace or not, can give advisory guidance to airlines about what to do.

"We have industry bodies, we have airlines with their own intelligence - particularly those larger global airlines who have local staff in a whole host of places around the world.

"But it isn't a hard and fast rule."

'Vital questions'
Australian experts examine the area of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 plane crash near the village of Grabove, east Ukraine, 1 August Australian experts are examining the MH17 the crash site in east Ukraine

Jim McAuslan, general secretary of the British Airline Pilots Association (Balpa), meanwhile, told Newsnight: "Our concern is that, in the balance of the equation, some airlines might be making decisions based on some financial or commercial consideration - rather than purely flight safety - simply to save six minutes on a flight and six minutes extra fuel burn."

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The incident shows that there are gaps in the overall management of airspace”

End Quote Jeff Poole Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation

Last week, Balpa warned that safety assessments for risky air routes were "not good enough", saying there must be "a uniform level of safety, not one decided in secret".

It called for "global leadership" from the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) in flight operations in or over areas of hostility.

On Tuesday, at a meeting of world aviation chiefs in Montreal, Canada, Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation (Canso) director general Jeff Poole said: "The downing of flight MH17 raises vital questions about the safety of aircraft over conflict zones.

"The incident shows that there are gaps in the overall management of airspace."

The Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 airliner came down on 17 July while flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

Rebels in Ukraine deny accusations from the West that they shot the plane down with a missile.

Embassy closed
A rally in Benghazi on August 1 Thousands of people have taken to the streets in Benghazi to protest against militias fighting armed forces

On Wednesday, meanwhile, British Airways suspended flights to and from Tripoli up to and including 5 August due to the security situation in Libya.

The country has been gripped by instability since the uprising in 2011.

More than 200 people have been killed in Tripoli and Benghazi in the past two weeks.

Britain is to temporarily close its embassy in the Libyan capital and the UK Foreign Office has urged Britons to leave the country immediately.

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