SIA stops flying over Afghanistan airspace

Risk of being hit by surface-to-air missiles in worsening civil war cited as reason.

COMMERCIAL airliners, including Singapore Airlines, have stopped flying over Afghanistan’s airspace because of the risk of being hit by surface-to-air missiles fired during the intensifying civil war there.

As a result, flights to the Middle East and Europe have been re-routed. In some cases, airliners flying “non-stop” flights have been forced to make stops because of the longer routes.

For example, Virgin Atlantic’s new “non-stop” flights from Hongkong to London stopped twice in Abu Dhabi for refuelling over the weekend.

SIA is among the other airlines which has also stopped flying over Afghanistan as a precautionary measure.

An SIA spokesman told The Straits Times yesterday that the airline decided last November on the move.

“Passenger safety is paramount to all airlines,” he said.

“We skirted over Afghanistan’s airspace because of the danger of missile attacks.”

He said that all flights that required flying over Afghan airspace were now re-routed through either Saudi or Iranian airspace.

“Flying through these airspaces is not new for SIA. It is a question of re-routing more flights,” added.

SIA flies 40 weekly services to Europe.

The spokesman said that the new routes were longer by about 30-35 km. But the additional flight times was marginal – an increase of about 10 minutes in flying time.

None of SIA’s flights had to make any technical stops in the Middle East as a result of the re-routing, he added.

The British government has also advised its commercial airliners to stay clear of Afghanistan’s airspace.

A British Foreign Office spokesman told The Straits Times yesterday in a telephone interview from London that it had issued the advice to all British carriers in January following intensified fighting in the Afghanistan civil war.

He said that military aircraft were being used increasingly in the conflict.

Ground forces respond by firing surface-to-air missiles.

Afghanistan’s Islamic groups ousted a communist government in 1992 and then turned Kabul into a battleground among themselves. About 10,000 people have been killed and many neighbourhoods have been reduced to rubble.

The current fighting is one of the heaviest in the past two years, but none of the factions is considered capable of eliminating its rivals completely.

Six groups hold various parts of the city and most or all are taking part in the current free-for-all.

Virgin’s stopover in Abu Dhabi angered its passengers who were informed that the unscheduled stops were made due to headwinds, the need to refuel due to a full load and to avoid flying over Afghanistan.

Tired and irate passengers, on arriving in London, said they stopped in Abu Dhabi for one hour 45 minutes.

Some said relatives had not been contacted as promised.

The stops were the first since Virgin started the “non-stop” run on Feb 22.

The airline has now made a total of 69 trips between London and Hongkong.

Virgin has been flying over Siberia and the North Pole, but when headwinds are too strong, a longer route over South-east Asia and south of Iran is chosen, resulting in refuelling.

The airline is now deciding whether to empty some 70 seats from its Hongkong-to-London service to guarantee a non-stop service.

Virgin’s Airbus 340-300s carry 279 passengers.

Cathay Pacific spokeman Phil Burfurd was quoted in reports as saying that avoiding Afghanistan’s airspace meant its daily non-stop flights were passing over Iran, with headwinds and loads prompting occasional stops in Rome.

One flight stopped over last Friday night, the first in a month.

British Airways confirmed it had also encountered similar problems.

The lightweight surface-to-air missiles which the warring Afghan forces are known to possess are known as stingers.

They are highly accurate anti-aircraft missile considered the best weapon of its kind.

Said the British Foreign Office spokesman: “The missiles could hit a civilian aircraft accidently when it is intended for a military aircraft.”

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