Germany has now told its airlines to avoid all Sinai airspace and Egypt has closed the area near the scene of the crash of a Russian holiday charter Metrojet flight on Saturday that killed all 224 people on board.
Qantas is understood to be reviewing its options should all its Middle East air routes between Dubai and London be closed, although such a risk to its operations appears very low at the moment.
The Sinai airspace closures block Qantas’s seldom used alternative route to London via Egyptian airspace. Its twice daily rotations between Dubai and London flown by A380s usually fly through Iranian airspace to avoid Iraq and Syria.
Fears that a ground based terrorist missile struck Metrojet flight 9268 about 23 minutes after it took off from Sharm el-Sheikh for St Petersburg have gained momentum, although there is no convincing publicly disclosed evidence that this is the cause of the disaster.
This is the context. A warning to airlines overflying Sinai which specifically detailed missiles in the area in the possession of terrorists was issued a year ago, and ignored. That warning said it was unsafe to fly over the peninsula at lower than 26,000 feet.
The inadequacy of altitude limits over disputed territory in which missiles are present was highlighted by the Dutch Safety Board report of 13 October into the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine on 17 July 2014 killing all 298 people on board.
Germany’s warnings affect the entire Sinai while Egypt has posted a notice that prohibits using a navigational waypoint not far from the crash scene and which is commonly used for some approaches to Cairo.
These developments coincide with the company that operated the Metrojet branded flight giving a press conference in which it said 9268 had to have been brought down by an ‘external force’. However industry observers have pointed out that a massive and disruptive mechanical failure could also have caused the sudden upset that hit the flight at just under 31,000 feet, as reported earlier.
For further context, Russian safety authorities were quick to open a criminal inquiry into the crash and mentioned mechanical concerns in the narrative that accompanied that announcement.
Relations between the operator and Russian authorities have seemed prickly at times, with Metrojet insisting that its other flights would continue as normal. (It is unclear whether they did.)
The speed with which Middle East carriers including Qantas route partner Emirates ended their Sinai overflights was notable. Flights can however travel through Egyptian airspace to other destinations by following large detours.
Should future events render the northern routes across Iran unsafe Qantas and dozens of other airlines would have to consider routing services between SE Asia and Europe across Russian airspace. Organising approvals for flight plans that would involve such transits and alternative diversion airports in China and Siberia could take considerable time. One of the options for Qantas would be to fly to London via Vancouver.
Qantas was contacted about the potential air route issues yesterday, and confirmed that Sinai overflights were a little used alternative to the flight paths across Iran.
In general, the risk of closure of Iran airspace is considered low, and while the safety notices concerning Sinai airspace involve a risk that was posted but disregarded a year ago, there is no proof that Metrojet 9268 was brought down by a missile.