British Airways and other airlines reroute flights to avoid Strait of Hormuz after Iran hits US drone

British Airways and other leading airlines on Friday began rerouting flights to avoid airspace over the Strait of Hormuz following Iran’s downing of a US military drone, as American authorities warned of the potential for mistaken attacks on commercial craft.

The US Federal Aviation Administration issued an emergency order banning American carriers from flying over the area, citing the danger from "heightened military activities and increased political tensions". 

A series of international carriers quickly followed suit, including Australia’s Qantas, the Netherlands’ KLM, Emirates, Abu Dhabi-based Etihad AIrways, Germany’s Lufthansa, Malaysia Airlines and Singapore Airlines.

The FAA has issued warnings over risks in the region before, but this time it pointed to evidence: "the Iranian surface-to-air missile shoot-down of a US unmanned aircraft system on 19 June 2019 while it was operating in the vicinity of civil air routes above the Gulf of Oman". 

President Donald Trump said on Friday that the US had prepared a retaliatory strike against Iranian military targets but that he called it off at the last minute to avoid casualties. 

The downing of the $130m surveillance drone – which Tehran says violated its airspace and the US insists was the target of an "unprovoked attack" in international airspace – has played into very real fears among airlines after Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine in 2014.

"The threat of a civil aircraft shootdown in southern Iran is real," warned OPSGROUP, a company that advises global airlines.

The Iranian system that targeted the US drone – an unmanned craft with a wingspan larger than a Boeing 737 jetliner – was similar to the Russian Buk missile system that took down MH17, OPSGROUP noted. 

"Any error in that system could cause it to find another target nearby – another reason not to be anywhere near this part of the Straits of Hormuz," OPSGROUP said.

Several airlines went further in their precautions than mandated by the FAA. While the US agency prohibited flights through the "Tehran Flight Information Region", which experts said extended 12 miles off the Iranian coast, a number of carriers said they would give the area a wider berth and avoid the Strait of Hormuz and Gulf of Oman entirely. 

British Airways, however, stuck to the letter of the FAA prohibition, confirming to the Telegraph that it would avoid Iranian airspace in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman only. 

Some services – such as United Airlines’ Newark to Mumbai route – have been halted completely.

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