Conflict in Syria has killed more than 350,000 people and displaced 11 million others since 2011. The United Nations continues to express deep concern for the safety of the estimated 750,000 people living in south-western Syria, as the civil war continues. While nearly all airlines have avoided flying over Syria for quite some time, the worsening shelling, conflict and fighting haven’t fazed one airline in the Middle East.
Airlines have always highlighted their commitment to safety, but many airlines’ policies on Middle Eastern airspace avoidance varied until Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine on 17 July 2014, killing 298 people. Dutch investigators found a surface-to-air missile was the culprit, handled by ‘amateur’ rebels. Before this tragedy, flyers in the Middle East would often dine at 35,000ft over Iraqi and Syrian cities in the middle of a war. But with MH17 prompting a need for airspace safety review within airlines — Syria joined the list of Libya, Afghanistan, Sudan, South Sudan and Yemen as an advisory ‘no-overfly zone’ by regulators worldwide.
The US Department of Travel specifically warns US citizens not to fly on an airline that travels through Syrian airspace, but the decision for an airline to cross-Syria relies upon the instruction of each individual country’s aviation authority, not the US. Despite the dangers highlighted by IATA (The International Air Transport Association), EASA (European Aviation Saftey Agency), among other regulators, it hasn’t stopped Lebanon’s flag carrier, Middle East Airlines, the only non-Syrian/non-Iraqi carrier still flying over Syria, while not flying to destinations in the country.
Middle East Airlines’ is putting their fuel costs above everything — a questionable priority, given safety should always come first. With Lebanon bordering Syria and further constrained by not being allowed to use Israeli airspace, if Middle East Airlines’ eastern routes were to avoid Syrian airspace, the aircraft would require extra fuel, and flight times would be increased.
In fact, unlike every other airline, the national carrier of Lebanon flies over Syria on nearly all of its eastbound routes, including between Lebanon and Dubai, where a detour would only add an extra 25 minutes, but it’s not a detour the airline wants to take. What’s even more concerning, is that the airline often climbs and descends through relatively low altitudes over Syria.
Previously, a flight from Beirut, Lebanon to Amman, Jordan on Royal Jordanian Airlines would have a flight time of around one hour — flying through Syrian airspace and across the Jordanian border, into Amman. Now that route takes nearly twice as long, with aircraft flying out into the Mediterranean before heading over Egypt, rather than flying the more direct route over Syria.
Royal Jordanian recognise that it is not ideal, given the extra fuel required at a time where the global price of oil is high — but the airline add “very minimum charges” to absorb some of the extra fuel costs of the rerouting, highlighting how its passengers wouldn’t expect the Jordanian carrier to fly over categorically ‘dangerous’ territory.
In Lebanon, some citizens are disappointed in Middle East Airlines’ relaxed nature in flying over Syria. A petition on international social-activism site ‘change.org’ is still currently active, urging Middle East Airlines to avoid Syrian airspace, highlighting that the airline risks a “national disaster.” Over time, various reports in Lebanese media have seen Middle East Airlines pilots speak on the condition of anonymity of how many are ‘uncomfortable’ with crossing Syria multiple times a day. Other pilots at Middle East Airlines (also on the condition of anonymity) have taken photos of rocket battles below their jets when flying over Syria, adding to the unease.
Some say the decision of Middle East Airlines flying over Syria is a political one imposed by the Lebanese government, and not directly in the hands of the flag carrier airline. Syria is said to have still had much influence over Lebanese politics via its allies, and with Middle East Airlines being the flag carrier — it’s allegedly being used as part of Lebanon’s foreign relations.
The UK, US, Germany, Gulf States among other countries all clearly state that Syria is ‘off-limits’ in its NOTAMS (a written notification issued to pilots before a flight, advising them of circumstances relating to the state of flying) to airline pilots. Instead, the world’s airlines routinely use Iran, and now Iraq, when flying through the region.
With many areas of this part of the Middle East off-limits, Iran admits the country is profiting from the increased air traffic. Iran’s Aeronautical Operations confirmed there had been a 75% increase in overflights, averaging around 900 flights through Iranian airspace per day.
Iran’s revenue from overflight and navigation fees has increased, and the country earns approximately $1025 from each overflight depending, on the size and weight of the airline jet.
While Middle East Airlines continue to fly across Syria despite the repeated warnings of the danger associated with doing so, concerned passengers who choose to avoid the airline could find themselves flying on a Middle East Airlines jet over Syria, despite booking with another airline (who avoid the airspace).
Passengers on many partner airlines, including Turkish Airlines, Etihad Airways, and Royal Jordanian Airlines’ are often booked to fly on Middle East Airlines flights to/from Beirut (over Syria) through codeshare agreements (an arrangement in which two or more airlines share passengers).
These partner airlines do not fly over Syria themselves, citing ‘dangerous territory avoidance’, but their flights operated by Middle East Airlines do. The carriers currently make no effort to inform passengers of just why Middle East Airlines flights to/from Beirut are around 50 minutes faster than every other airline, and a simple “This flight is operated by our airline partner (Middle East Airlines) who use Syrian airspace” statement would be much more responsible — rather than avoiding the reality, which in turn could be interpreted as misleading passengers.
With the majority of the world’s governments, state agencies and aviation authorities banning its airlines from overflying Syria, passengers can only find themselves crossing the war-zone on a Middle East Airlines flight to or from Beirut.
The US Department of Travel specifically warns US citizens not to fly on an airline that travels through Syrian airspace — and for this reason, partner airlines of Middle East Airlines (which include SkyTeam members, as well as Qatar Airways, Saudia Airlines, Turkish Airlines, among others) have a responsibility to make clear that choosing a ticket ‘operated by Middle East Airlines’ is choosing to fly an airline that adopts a different airspace avoidance policy to the rest of the world, and to the airline selling you your ticket.