Some of the world’s leading carriers including British Airways, Qantas and Singapore Airlines on Friday suspended flights over the Strait of Hormuz, as Iran-US tensions flare over the downing of a drone.
Germany’s Lufthansa and Dutch carrier KLM also said they’d avoid the region.
The US barred American-registered aircraft from flying over Iranian-administered airspace in the Persian Gulf, affecting a region crucial to global air travel.
The Federal Aviation Administration warned of a “potential for miscalculation or misidentification” in the region after an Iranian surface-to-air missile on Thursday brought down a US Navy RQ-4A Global Hawk, an unmanned aircraft with a wingspan larger than a Boeing 737 jetliner and costing over $100 million. US officials said plans were made made for limited strikes on Iran in response, but were called them off.
The FAA previously warned of a risk in the region, but Friday’s warning threw into stark relief a danger both it and analysts warned was real after the shooting down of a Malaysian Airlines flight over Ukraine in 2014. That could further imperil the bottom lines of Gulf long-haul carriers, which already have faced challenges under the Trump administration.
“The threat of a civil aircraft shoot-down in southern Iran is real,” warned OPSGROUP, a company that provides guidance to global airlines.
The FAA made a similar warning in May to commercial airliners of the possibility of Iranian anti-aircraft gunners mistaking them for military aircraft, something dismissed by Tehran some 30 years after the US Navy shot down an Iranian passenger jet.
Iran had no immediate reaction to the US announcement.
The FAA said its warning would affect the area of the Tehran Flight Information Region, without elaborating. The FAA’s operations center referred questions to its press office, which did not immediately respond to queries from The Associated Press. However, that likely only extends some 12 miles off of the Iranian coast, aviation experts said.
There are “heightened military activities and increased political tensions in the region, which present an inadvertent risk to US civil aviation operations and potential for miscalculation or misidentification,” the FAA said. “The risk to US civil aviation is demonstrated by the Iranian surface-to-air missile shoot-down of a US unmanned aircraft system on 19 June 2019 while it was operating in the vicinity of civil air routes above the Gulf of Oman.”
The Persian Gulf is home to some of the world’s top long-haul carriers, who already have been battered by Trump’s travel bans targeting a group of predominantly Muslim countries, as well as an earlier ban on laptops in airplane cabins for Mideast carriers. Etihad, the Abu Dhabi-based long-haul carrier, said it had “contingency plans” in place, without elaborating.
“We will decide what further action is required after carefully evaluating the FAA directive to US carriers,” the carrier told The Associated Press.
The other major carriers, Emirates and Qatar Airways, as well as low-cost carriers, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Iran said the drone “violated” its territorial airspace, while the US called the missile fire “an unprovoked attack” in international airspace over the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf. OPSGROUP said the Iranian weapons system that shot down the drone was comparable to the Russian Buk system used in 2014 Malaysian Airlines shootdown in Ukraine.
“Any error in that system could cause it to find another target nearby — another reason not to be anywhere near this part of the Straits of Hormuz,” OPSGROUP said.
President Donald Trump initially tweeted that “Iran made a very big mistake!” He later appeared to play down the incident, telling reporters in the Oval Office that he had a feeling “a general or somebody” being “loose and stupid” made a mistake in shooting down the drone.
A US official said the military made preparations Thursday night for limited strikes on Iran in retaliation for the downing of a US surveillance drone, but approval was abruptly withdrawn before the attacks were launched.
The official, who was not authorized to discuss the operation publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said the targets would have included radars and missile batteries.
The New York Times reported that Trump had approved the strikes, but then called them off. The newspaper cited anonymous senior administration officials.