Experts say diversions will add anything between 45 and 75 minutes to the flying time from India to Europe. There was chaos at the Kabul airport as people scrambled to fly out
The stunning pace of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan and its implications for the world will take some time to sink in but the immediate concern is international flights between India and the Middle East, Europe, the US and Canada.
The situation in Afghanistan, renamed as the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” by the Taliban, also has implications for Air India, the only Indian carrier flying between India and Kabul. The flag carrier had been evacuating people stranded in Afghanistan.
But the new rulers have shut their airspace for civilian aircraft. This means that flights from India to the Middle East and onwards to Europe, the US and Canada will now have to be re-routed over Karachi or Lahore in Pakistan and then to Iran or the Arabian Gulf.
Earlier, the flights would fly from India to Pakistan and then Afghanistan to continue their onwards journey.
“The closure of Afghan airspace and resultant diversion will add anything between 45 minutes and 75 minutes of flying time from India to Europe. Timings for flights to northernmost cities in Europe like Stockholm and Copenhagen will go up by as much as 75 minutes,” said a pilot.
It will also be a nightmare for the commercial departments of various airlines as now more crew and fuel would have to be accounted for, the pilot said.
“The west-bound flights from India, and those overflying India, use five international routes over Afghanistan, all of which lie south of Kabul. These routes are not always available due to the conflict, and flights are often rerouted,” said Captain PP Singh, Senior Vice President, JetLite, and Examiner, A-330, Nepal Airlines.
Riding Into The Danger Zone
Airspace warnings by western countries advise the aircraft to fly above 26,000 feet or even higher to keep the aircraft out of the range of ground fire, which includes Man-Portable Air Defence Systems— the best known of which is the Stinger missile, he said. “Most operators also advise their crew to avoid diverting to any airport in Afghanistan except in a dire emergency,” he said.
With the escalation in the conflict in Afghanistan, the aviation sector faced an increased risk and “the simple precautions in place may not be enough in the new scenario”, Singh said.
With Afghanistan closing its airspace, the traffic over Iran and UAE would go up sharply. That airspace was further restricted in the south because of the conflict in Yemen and southern part of Saudi Arabia, posing similar threats to aircraft, he said.
“For airlines, as the long-range flights increase towards pre-COVID levels, it would mean less availability of departure slots and flight levels in addition to the longer or less economical routings,” Singh said.
Even before the Afghan authorities closed their airspace to civilian aircraft, airlines such as British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and United Airlines were using alternative routes than overflying Afghanistan.
In India, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has issued an advisory to Indian carriers using the Afghan airspace to look for alternative routes. Airlines’ fears are not unfounded as there have been at least three instances of commercial aircraft being shot down in strife-torn parts of the world.
A Korean Airliner was brought down in September 1983 in the Sea of Japan, killing more than 200 passengers on board. In 2014, a Malaysia Airlines plane was shot over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. Six years later, all 176 passengers and crew members of a Ukraine International Airlines flight were killed when the jet was hit by missiles fired by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.
The pilot community in India is divided over avoiding the Afghan airspace. “The Taliban are known to carry shoulder-mounted missiles, which can bring down an aircraft that is coming into land or take off but it will be very improbable that these missiles will have the range to bring down an aircraft which is cruising at 35,000 or 40,000 feet,” an Air India captain who has flown into Kabul said.
The Kabul Test
The situation at Kabul airport, where five people were killed amid a scramble to fly out on August 16, is very different from the early 1990s when the coalition forces led by the US ousted the Taliban from Afghanistan, he said.
“At that time, Jeppesen charts, which are carried by every airman, would warn us about unexploded mines on the sides of the runway and there were burnt-out aircraft all around the airport. But now the American’s have built a world-class airport in Kabul complete with Instrument Landing Systems which guide in aircraft and a proper Air Traffic Control system,” the pilot said.
Of course, when it comes to flying into Kabul the situation is different. The airport is in a valley, with limited arrival and departure routes because of obstacle clearance considerations. Civilian aircraft require special contingency procedures to deal with the possibility of an engine failure or cabin depressurisation, which, according to pilots will now become more complex to deal with given the threat of projectiles from the ground.
Pilots normally require special training in a simulator and aircraft followed by a check flight for clearance to operate on this highly demanding sector. There is also a minimum experience requirement for the crew before they can be trained for Kabul.
“The airlines and DGCA will need to be extremely vigilant and proactively process all information coming from Afghanistan which can impact aircraft operations, be it civil or military, and take immediate steps to enhance operating procedures,” said Singh.
The operators would also need to continuously update and revalidate their safety-risk assessments
“The situation in Afghanistan is similar to Syria where also there are combat aircraft in the air so civilian aircraft tend to avoid Syrian airspace,” said another pilot.
The precarious situation in Afghanistan can be gauged from the fact that Air India put two wide-body aircraft on the stand-by fly to Mazar-e-Sharif last week. The mission was called off as the Afghan authorities could not guarantee a 30-mile safe zone for approaching aircraft. The Taliban took control of Mazar-e-Sharif, the fourth largest Afghan city, on August 14