Following the FAA’s decision to prohibit U.S. registered aircraft from operating flights over the Persian Gulf and in particular Iranian airspace, we have put together a list of facts to provide you with everything you need to know about this on-going situation.
First of all, to put things into perspective you have to understand the events that led up to the FAA’s ban.
Iran and the United States have been de facto enemies ever since the Iranian revolution in 1979 and the ensuing hostage crisis that saw Fifty-two American diplomats and citizens held captive for 444 days from November 4, 1979, to January 20, 1981.
Fast forward nearly 30 years and you now have a country (Iran) run by religious fanatics, that not only suppress their own people, but want to be a bigger player in their own neighbourhood.
Iran is surrounded by predominantly Arabic speaking Sunni Muslim enemies like Saudi Arabia and Iraq, with whom they fought a bitter eight-year war in which over a million Iranians were killed.
Following on from the Iran-Iraq war, Iran started supporting Shia militias in a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon and Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Iran sent members of its Revolutionary Guard to fight on the side of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, along with Hezbollah during the Syrian Civil War and currently supplies Houthi rebels with missiles that they regularly fire at Saudi Arabia.
The big crunch, however, is not the isolated conflicts in the Middle East, but Iran’s nuclear programme.
The Iranians say that it is purely for electric power stations and medicines, while the United States and Israel are worried that they might try and build a nuclear weapon.
Almost immediately upon taking office, President Donald Trump walked away from the Nuclear deal agreed between the Europeans and President Obama and proceeded to impose heavy sanctions on Iran, which they are now beginning to feel.
Now backing up his economic sanctions with military might, Trump dispatched a carrier group to the Persian Gulf and redeployed B52 bombers to Qatar.
Using the pretext that the United States had credible intelligence saying that either Iran or its proxies were planning to attack American troops in the region, America was steadily building up its military presence.
Iran’s Back is against the wall
Let’s make no mistake here, the sanctions are working with the Iranian currency having lost almost 60% of its value against the US dollar, forcing up the price of everyday goods according to the BBC.
Yet, despite the sanctions and Trump saying he wants to talk, the Iranian regime is playing hardball in refusing to enter negotiations with the “Great Satan” as America is often portrayed in the Iranian media.
Oil and the tankers that transport them
Nearly two weeks ago now, several tankers transporting oil from the Gulf States were mined by members of the Iranian Navy according to the American’s.
Iran, of course, denies that they had anything to do with the attacks on international shipping, but nevertheless, America is certain they are behind them and that the Iranians want to ramp up the attacks until America loosens its economic hold.
The downing of the drone
Last Thursday the Iranian Revolutionary Guard claimed it has shot down a high-altitude America Drone over its territory.
The United States countered that by saying the unarmed Global Hawk surveillance aircraft was monitoring shipping and was flying in international airspace.
Following the downing of the drone the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps Major General Hossein Salami said, as reported by CNN, “Iran does not want war with any country,” but it was “completely, and totally, ready and prepared for war.”
This did not go down well with Trump, who according to the Telegraph had American forces ready to attack strategic targets in Iran before calling the mission off when he learned it would probably kill 150 or so people.
International waters and Iranian airspace
Following the downing of the drone and the FAA prohibiting American commercial aircraft from flying anywhere near the Straits of Hormuz, other nation’s airlines have reacted in a similar way.
United Airlines were quick to cancel their Newark-Mumbai flight, while British Airways, KLM and Lufthansa also said they would follow the FAA advisory and reroute their aircraft away from Iranian airspace.
Cancelling and rerouting flights costs airlines a lot of money
Fling around war zones and areas of conflict costs airlines a lot of time and money, with direct routes always preferable to taking the long way around.
Prior to this latest warning, for several years airlines avoided flying over Syrian and parts of Iraq, all of Yemen and the North Sinai where Egypt is trying to defeat Islamic militants.
“The Middle East has never been more complex for aircraft operators,” said Mark Zee, the founder of OpsGroup, an organization that monitors airspace for member airlines and controllers when talking to CNN Business. “It’s got even more complex over the past six months. No matter which way you turn, a route has been cut off.”
Having the Middle East out of bounds for European carriers is especially bad as all flights to the Far East fly over the Middle East on route to places like Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Bangkok.
“It’s a massive amount of traffic,” said Zee. “And there isn’t much of an alternative.”
Zee points out how up until recently, airlines had been flying over Iran so as to avoid Pakistan and the prospect of an armed conflict with India.
Now Iran is a no-go, the airlines will have to get the map, pencils and calculators out and figure new alternate routes.
To reinforce the airline’s decision to avoid flying over Iran, Zee brought up the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 in 2014 in which Russian separatists shot down an airliner over Eastern Ukraine killing all 298 passengers and crew.
To bring the message home, not that it was really needed this time, the FAA said in a statement, “FAA remains concerned about the escalation of tension and military activity within close proximity to high volume civilian air routes,” the agency warned. “There is concern about the potential for misidentification or miscalculation which could result in the inadvertent targeting of civil aviation.”
The Iranian missile used to down the American drone can bring down an aircraft flying at 60,000 ft, almost double the altitude commercial jets fly at.
Zee thinks that the quick action taken by the airlines over this latest incident is prudent, adding: “Within 24 hours, we’ve had a bulk of the major carriers all stop overflying this region.”
“If there’s a good news part of this, it’s how quickly airlines are making risk-based decisions to avoid airspace.”