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Airlines divided over flying Iraq after MH17 crash

Source: Financial Times

A split has emerged between airlines about whether it is safe to fly over war-torn Iraq, after Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was downed in Ukraine.

British Airways and Etihad Airways are among those continuing to fly passenger jets over Iraq, while Air France and Virgin Atlantic have stopped doing so. Emirates Airline also plans to halt the practice while Qantas, which has been passing over, on Saturday announced it was suspending flying over Iraq.

Many aircraft flying between European and Asian cities pass over Iraq, where the government is fighting jihadis led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as Isis, which controls much of the north and west.

The conflict has prompted US regulators to order the country’s carriers to fly higher above the country “due to the potentially hazardous situation”. The Federal Aviation Administration told US carriers on Thursday night to fly above 30,000ft in Iraq, having previously instructed them to keep above 20,000ft.

Willie Walsh, chief executive of International Airlines Group, parent of BA, said on Friday: “We fly over Iraq because we consider it safe — if we thought Iraq was unsafe we would not fly over Iraq.”

However, he admitted that it may be “confusing” for passengers trying to understand why airlines had adopted different positions on Iraq.

Walsh said airlines should conduct their own risk assessments to decide whether to fly over conflict zones because they have different operations and aircraft.

Risk assessment

He revealed that British Airways decided in March to stop flying over war-torn eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russia separatists allegedly shot down MH17 last month using a Buk surface to air missile.

Walsh said carriers should swap more information. British Airways does not share its risk assessments with other airlines but Walsh said it if had shown them to Malaysia Airlines, a partner in the Oneworld alliance, it might have prevented the tragedy in Ukraine.

Abu Dhabi-based Etihad said safety was its “number one priority” but there was no evidence that jihadis in Iraq have either the capability or intent to target aircraft flying over the country.

However, Virgin said it had stopped flying over Iraq. “Safety and security is our top priority and we will always follow government advice in such matters.”

In the latest shift of position, Lufthansa, which has been flying over Iraq, announced on Friday that the group’s airlines would suspend doing so until Monday as a “precautionary measure”. It said there was “no danger” in flying over Iraq but Lufthansa wanted to evaluate statements by regulators, including those in the US.

Delta Air Lines and United of the US both said they were not flying over Iraq.

Carriers often rely on information from their home country governments, including intelligence agencies, when deciding whether to fly over conflict zones.

Consumer groups

After the MH17 disaster, the International Civil Aviation Organisation, the UN agency that sets global aviation standards, has started considering how “threat information” can be best made available to regulators and carriers.

Emirates is pushing for a new body — possibly set up under the auspices of the International Air Transport Association, the main airline trade body — to share airline risk assessments about conflict zones.

Consumer groups urged carriers, who do not typically give passengers advance details of flight routes, to be more open about which conflict zones they fly over.

Brandon Macsata, executive director of the US Association for Airline Passenger Rights, said: “There are certain passengers who may not want to fly over countries if there is military conflict going on.”

EUclaim, a Netherlands company focused on helping airline passengers claim compensation under EU law for delayed and cancelled flights, also called for more transparency.


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