Emirates airlines, one of the world’s biggest carriers, will stop flying over Iraq after concerns about the missile threat posed by Islamist militants, The Times reported on Monday.
Tim Clark, president of Emirates, said he believed other airlines would follow, as the industry began to review assessing the risk of flying over conflict areas after the Malaysia Airlines disaster in Ukraine. Flight MH17 was reportedly shot down by pro-Russian separatists using a surface-to-air missile.
“The horrors that this created was a kick in the solar plexus for all of us,” Clark said. “Nevertheless having got through it we must take stock and deal with it.”
By the end of the year airlines will have a system through which they can share information on troubled flight routes, Clark said.
Political sensitivities between governments should not bar input from government intelligence agencies about what airspace is considered risky, the British president of the Dubai-based airline said.
“This is a political animal but . . . the fact of the matter is MH17 changed everything, and that was very nearly in European airspace,” Clark told The Times. “We cannot continue to say, ‘Well it’s a political thing’. We have to do something. We have to take the bull by the horns.”
The Times reported that the United States was urgently investigating the possibility of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria fighters in northern Iraq acquiring missiles stockpiles from neighboring Syria capable of shooting down a civilian aircraft at 30,000ft or higher.
Hundreds of flights pass over ISIS-controlled territory in Iraq every day. A predominantly preferred route flies directly over the Iraqi city of Mosul, an ISIS stronghold.
Clark said that he was “not comfortable” with the situation. More than 50 flights travel from and to British airports cross Iraqi airspace, most of which are operated by Emirates.
Hundreds of Emirates flights en-route to and from major European airports received instructions to re-route flights that use Iraqi airspace daily. The changes will be implemented over the next week to ten days.
“We can’t do it all at once because we have got an awful lot going through it, but yes we will be doing that,” Clark explained.
Alternative routes being considered by the airline would take aircraft across Saudi Arabia and the Red Sea, over Cairo and finally into European airspace, adding add up to 45 minutes to flight times. Flying over Iran is another alternative being explored.
“That is the kind of thing that will demonstrate to the public that we take this extremely seriously and that is exactly what we are doing,” Clark said.
Airline industry groups will meet tomorrow in a meeting convened by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations body that oversees civil aviation, to discuss ways to reduce the risks of flying over trouble zones.
Clark said that heads of major airlines, joined by their operational and flight and group-safety teams would aim to meet next month to work out what more carriers could do to improve their risk assessments.
“In the end the outcome of it will be a more refined sharing of information,” he said. The Emirates boss added that he hoped any new information-sharing and disseminating system would go through the International Air Transport Association, a Geneva-based trade organization that represents about 200 global airlines.
This kind of cooperation would be the outcome of lessons learnt from the Flight MH17 tragedy. “I was absolutely beside myself with rage and anger with what happened,” said Clark, who has been in the airline business for four decades.
“It is something that, as an airline person, it is very difficult to deal with. It is a slight on what you do. It suggests that you are not doing your job properly,” he said. “From out of this ghastly, hideous mass murder if we are going to get anything out of it, it is that the airline community are minded to try and improve what they do.”