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Airspace Closure: The Invisible Power of Countries

March 06, 2020
Airspace Closure: The Invisible Power of Countries
Following the tragedy of the Ukraine International Airlines airplane, which had departed from Tehran and was shot down by a missile, many airlines changed their flight routes claiming that Iranian airspace was no longer safe. What do these types of changes in flight courses mean for the airlines and for the countries that would not be flown over anymore? How is airspace utilized to a country’s advantage, what potential power does it hold and how is it a source of income?

After Iran Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Commander - Major General Qasem Soleiman’s death from the U.S.’ bombing of Baghdad Airport on January 3, 2020, the world focused on Iran’s reaction. When we woke up on the morning of January 3, we came across the news informing that Iran Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps hit certain U.S. Bases in Iraq and nearly 20 minutes later, we learned that the UPS-PSR registered 3.5-year old Boeing 737-800 of Ukraine International Airlines airplane taking off from Tehran and destined to Ukraine under the flight number PS-752 crashed in Parand near Tehran. It was immediately clear that there was an extremely complicated crisis unfolding and a lot at stake! The picture became clearer as we observed the first news in the global press and started to piece it together. Iranian officials claimed that the airplane crashed due to a technical difficulties after they completed the world’s fastest flight accident investigation. They went further to announce the category of the technical fault. According to Iranian officials, one of the engines of the airplane burst into flames causing the pilots to lose control. These urgent announcements revealed that they were in fact intending to cover certain realities. The images of the wreckage contained critical clues regarding the crashed airplane. The shrapnel marks over the parts of airplane seemed to signal a murderer leaving his fingerprint at the murder scene. The quirky statements of the Iranian officials claiming that the black box of the airplane would not be shared with Boeing raised heavy doubts and as the different images on the fall of the airplane started to circulate on social media, the mystery was unveiled. The written statement of the Iranian General Staff dated January 11 expressed that while flying over a sensitive military zone, the airplane was shot down due to a “human error” of the air defense system. The Foreign Affairs Minister apologized for the disaster and claiming that this was an unforgivable mistake and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei assured that the persons in charge of this mistake would be punished severely. All and all, 167 passengers and a flight crew of 9 people were killed because of a ‘faulty’ step of the Iranian officials. Afghanistan benefited from the closure of Iran’s airspace! The airspace of Iran was provisionally closed. After a while, FAA and EASA lifted the closure of the airspace however many airlines avoided using Iran’s airspace even for transit passages. Afghanistan surely benefited from the airlines’ changes in flight courses due to safety requirements. Many airlines headed towards Afghanistan’s airspace instead of Iran particularly during the flights between Europe and India and Southeast Asia. Shortly after the shooting down of the Ukrainian airplane, the daily number of airplanes using Afghanistan’s airspace reached a record beating figure of 415. Though there may be a slight decrease in these figures as certain airlines decided to apply their standard courses via Iran’s airspace, the daily average of 390 transit overflights is still way above the usual utilization of Afghanistan’s airspace. Taking into consideration the fact that the payment for each transit overflight is US$ 700, it may be concluded that Afghanistan’s revenue from the overflights increased by US$ 100,000 per day. With an aim to progress in the area of aviation Afghanistan has been planning since last July to increase the daily fee for overflights to US$ 950. The overflight fees are the country’s third greatest source of income after customs and communication sectors. Syrian airspace has remained closed for 10 years! In the beginning of 2010, a civil war - that has lasted nearly 10 years – broke out in Syria located in the heart of Middle East. The whole country turned into a battlefield. For that reason, airlines were rerouting their flights to avoid flying through Syrian airspace. As a result of the negotiations held with the Syrian government in 2019, The flag carrier of Qatar, Qatar Airways became the first foreign airline that started to use Syrian airspace after quite a long while. Qatar Airways started to use Syrian airspace for the flights conducted to Lebanon’s capital Beirut and Larnaca in South Cyprus. Within the aforementioned 10-year period, Syrian airspace was merely used by Lebanon’s national airlines - the Middle East Airlines just a few times. Qatar Airways’ flights from Doha to Beirut and Larnaca used to be conducted over a much longer course upon the Saudi Arabia’s decision on closing its airspace to the flights of Qatar Airways in 2017, this increased the flight duration and Qatar Airways experienced a severe financial loss of due to increased fuel consumption expenses. Carriers typically follow the shortest great-circle paths unless hindered by closed or hazardous airspace, or factors such as poor weather. Upon the decision of opening the airspace, the duration of the Beirut - Doha flight conducted by Qatar Airways over Damascus by Boeing 787 airplane is shorten the time to 2 hours and 26 minutes from 3 hours and 26 minutes that avoiding Syrian airspace. Even the slightest amount of fuel saving is of vital importance on a commercial flight, therefore the fuel savings due to a ‘one-hour decrease in flight duration’ became a significant added value for the airlines. When Qatar Airways started to use Syrian airspace again it became an additional source of income for Syria which is striving to resurrect its economy. What is airspace? Why is it critical? Airspace is a term used for defining the portion of the atmosphere controlled by a country above its territory, including its territorial waters or, more generally, any specific three-dimensional portion of the atmosphere. When regarded in terms of the area it covers, the largest regular division of airspace in use in the world today is the flight information region known as FIR. Every country’s airspace is divided into one or more flight information regions depending on the size, location and the air traffic of the country. Turkish airspace which is approximately 1 million square kilometers is divided into two flight information regions, namely the Ankara FIR and Istanbul FIR; The United Kingdom’s airspace is divided into two regions composed of Scottish FIR and London FIR. In accordance with the Chicago Convention signed in 1944, every State has complete and exclusive sovereignty over the airspace above. All states that are parties to the convention are obliged to allow the utilization of their airspaces by other states’ airplanes without “prior authorization” (except for scheduled international flights). How does the closure of airspace affect airlines? Severe competition, global economic slowdown, increasing fuel prices and the pressure of the authorities in reducing emissions has a serious impact on the profit margin of airline companies. The decision on closing certain airspaces over the standard course of airlines implies that a longer flight must be planned to bypass the closed airspace. This indicates longer flight duration and higher fuel costs. The natural outcome of all the aforementioned parameters is the flight tickets with higher prices. Alternative flight routes increase operational costs and prolonged closure of airspaces affects the profitability of airline companies negatively. How many airplane use Turkish airspace? Turkey has a two-hour flight distance from Edirne to Kars and is the country with the longest airspace in Europe. Due to the region it is located in and the critical geopolitical position between the east and west, the number of overflights is quite high. In 2019, with an increase of 13 thousand 71 flights in the total flight traffic covering flights by using the airports and transit overflights conducted in Turkey, the overall figure reached 2 million 30 thousand 291. This figure indicates that an average of 232 airplanes per hour are using Turkish airspace. In 2003, the total number of overflights was 529 thousand in Turkish airspace, so the number of airplanes using the airspace in the last 16 years has almost quadrupled! Air traffic in Turkish airspace also increased in 2019 in terms of the total number of overflights that are qualified as the aircrafts’ utilization of a given country’s airspace without ever landing on a within the borders of that country. In 2019, 476 thousand 790 airplanes used Turkish airspace for overflights, while in the previous year, the number of airplanes conducting overflight was recorded as 473 thousand 51. How are overflight fees collected? Providing services for the safe, efficient and environment-friendly air traffic operations throughout Europe, Eurocontrol is also in charge of collecting the overflight fees from the airlines and distributing them to its 41 member countries. Turkey collects utilization charges for its airspace via Eurocontrol - an organization of which it has been a member since 1989. Eurocontrol, an umbrella organization established to form a single airspace in Europe, issues overflight bills to airline companies on a unit price based on the weight and distance parameters of the aircraft. Airline companies pay the billed overflight fees into the accounts of Eurocontrol. Which are the most and least expensive airspaces? According to January 2020 data of Eurocontrol, an airline using German airspace pays EUR 63.7 for every 100 km. The utilization fee of Italian airspace is EUR 66.15 per 100 km; Austria’s fee is EUR 59.58; fee for use of France’s airspace is EUR 58.82. In Belgium and Luxembourg where the airspace tariff is the highest in the world, airlines pay EUR 91.14 for every 100 km they use. With EUR 7.91, Portugal has the least expensive overflight fee and Turkey collects EUR 27.63 for every 100 km from the airlines using its airspace


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