Air France Shuns Iraq Skies as Carriers Confused on Missile Risk

Air France-KLM Group said it has stopped flying across Iraq, in contrast with Etihad Airways PJSC, which is routing jets over the war-torn state, as industry leaders meet in an effort to resolve confusion about the safety of operations above combat zones.

The French unit of Europe’s biggest carrier says it quit flying over parts of Iraq months ago and ceased operations entirely last week, with Dutch unit KLM also rerouting services that went over the north of the country. Dubai-based Emirates is likewise working on plans to divert operations.

Airlines are shunning Iraqi airspace amid global concern that Islamic State militants may have got hold of anti-aircraft missiles of the kind thought to have downed a Malaysian Air jet over Ukraine. Others are still using the popular route between Europe and Asia, with Abu Dhabi-based Etihad continuing flights and Germany’s Deutsche Lufthansa AG avoiding only some areas after the International Civil Aviation Organization advised that carriers simply take extra precautions. A summit today will see aviation chiefs seek to hammer out a clearer approach.

“Emirates is taking precautionary measures and is currently working on alternative routing plans for flights,” the world’s biggest carrier on international routes said in an e-mail yesterday. “We are closely monitoring the situation along with international agencies, and will never compromise the safety of our customers and crew.”

Rerouting has begun, though the entire process will take several days to complete, the company said.

In-House Assessment

Flightpaths have become a concern for passengers after Malaysian Air Flight MH17 broke up over eastern Ukraine on July 17, killing all 298 passengers and crew. The U.S. has said a missile strike by pro-Russia rebels was most likely to blame, with pieces of fuselage appearing to show telltale signs of rocket shrapnel. Black-box flight recorders from the Boeing Co. 777 are undergoing analysis, with the examination of bodies also under way as experts seek evidence of the attack.

Air France said it conducted an in-house assessment of security risks over Iraq and chose to detour, even though ICAO and organizations including the European Aviation Safety Agency haven’t specifically asked airlines to steer clear.

Etihad said that for the moment it hasn’t altered flight plans to avoid Iraqi air space.

“There is no evidence that either the capability or the intent exists to target aircraft overflying Iraq, by either side of the current conflict in Iraq,” it said in an e-mail. “The nature of the current security environment in Iraq is significantly different than in the Ukraine.”

The third-biggest Gulf airline puts safety concerns above everything else and will review its plans as needed, it said.

Montreal Meeting

Heads of ICAO, Airports Council International and the Civil Air Navigation Services Organization will meet in Montreal today to discuss the industry’s approach to flying over battlefields following the Malaysian Air tragedy.

Participants will discuss “appropriate actions to be pursued in order to more effectively mitigate potential risks to civil aviation arising from conflict zones,” ICAO says.

Regulatory organizations constantly review security risks and other concerns such as bad weather and can issue advisories that are valid for short or lengthy periods of time, though until the Ukraine incident only North Korean airspace was subject to an industry-wide no-fly stipulation.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration last week banned its carriers from flying to Tel Aviv for the first time since the 1991 Gulf War after a surface-to-surface rocket landed 1 mile from Ben Gurion International Airport.

While American Airlines Group Inc., United Continental Holdings Inc. and Delta Air Lines Inc. suspended services temporarily and Air France and Lufthansa also halted operations on the advice of EASA, El Al Israel Airlines Ltd. kept flying and was joined by carriers including British Airways.

BA, a unit of London-based International Consolidated Airlines Group SA, declined to say if it’s flying over Iraq.

“Our flight plans vary depending on a variety of factors,” the carrier said. “We would never fly in airspace unless we were satisfied that it was safe to do so.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.