FAA bans American carriers from operating in Tehran-controlled airspace due to 'heightened military activities'; United Airlines suspends NY/Newark-Mumbai service

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Friday issued a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) warning American carriers are not permitted in the overwater area of the Tehran Flight Information Region until further notice, due to heightened military activities and increased political tensions in the region.

Earlier, the United Airlines in a statement had said that "given current events in Iran, United Airlines has conducted a thorough safety and security review of our India service through Iranian airspace and decided to suspend service between New York/Newark and India (Mumbai) beginning today evening". A United spokesman told Reuters that customers flying from Mumbai to Newark would be booked on alternative flights back to the United States.

In a separate advisory to operators, the FAA said that according to flight tracking applications, the nearest civil aircraft was operating within around 45 nautical miles (83 kilometres) of a US Global Hawk drone when it was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile on Thursday. “There were numerous civil aviation aircraft operating in the area at the time of the intercept,” FAA said. In May, the US aviation watchdog had advised all US airlines to exercise caution in flying over Iran and nearby areas due to the heightened military activities and increased political tensions in the region.

The downing of the unarmed Global Hawk aircraft, which can fly at up to 60,000 feet (18,300 metres), was the latest of a series of incidents in the Gulf region — a critical artery for global oil supplies — including explosive strikes on six oil tankers, The Sydney Morning Herald reported.

The agency said it remained concerned about the escalation of tension and military activity within close proximity to high volume civil aircraft routes as well as Iran’s willingness to use long-range missiles in international airspace with little or no warning and therefore flying in overwater area of Tehran-controlled airspace over the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman was being suspended.

“The threat of a civil aircraft shootdown in southern Iran is real,” it advised operators on Thursday. “Avoiding the Strait of Hormuz area is recommended — misidentification of aircraft is possible.”

On Thursday, two other carriers, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines, also did not fly over Iran. Japanese carriers Japan Airlines and ANA also reportedly did not fly over the area.

The New York Times reported that Donald Trump had approved military strikes against Iran but pulled back from launching them on Thursday night, a day after tensions escalated. Trump said Iran had made a "big mistake" but later told reporters that he thought it might not have been intentional.

While Iran insists that the US drone was moving in stealth mode over its territorial waters, the US is arguing that it was flying over international waters. As per the Reuters report, US House Republican leaders have called on the Trump administration to take action over the downing of the drone, while US Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer observed that Democrats are worried that the president will "bumble" into a war with Iran.

Tensions in the region escalated in May 2018, when the US pulled out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and re-imposed sanctions on the West Asian nation, particularly targeting its oil sector. The US has also in recent weeks stepped up its forces in the region in what US National Security Adviser John Bolton described as a "clear and unmistakable message" to Iran.

However, on Thursday, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif stressed that Washington continues to wage "economic terrorism" against the Islamic republic. Tehran is not seeking war, he noted, but will "defend (its) skies, land and waters".

However, according to reports, the flare-up between the US and Iran is not the only geopolitical row to affect United's India services. Earlier in February, it suspended flights between Newark and New Delhi until early July amid the standoff between India and Pakistan that saw their fighter jets engage in an aerial dogfight over the border. In the wake of the incident, Pakistan had closed its airspace for India.

In July 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down by a missile over Ukraine, killing all 298 on board, prompting carriers to take more steps to uncover threats to their planes.

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Updated Date: Jun 21, 2019 10:50:50 IST