• The FAA has relaxed rules allowing high-altitude flights over Afghanistan, but airlines are still hesitant to cross Afghan airspace due to safety concerns.
  • Airlines are concerned about the presence of surface-to-air weaponry in Afghanistan, despite the FAA's assurance that it doesn't pose a threat to high-altitude flights.
  • Flights between Asia and Europe or North America take longer routes to avoid Afghan airspace, causing increased fuel consumption and operational costs for airlines.

The US Federal Aviation Administration recently revised its rules regarding airlines flying over the airspace of Afghanistan. It has allowed high-altitude flights over the region, deeming such operations safe. But despite such relaxations, airlines are not too keen on crossing Afghan airspace for flights to Asia.

FAA relaxes rules

On July 25th, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) allowed high-altitude overflights over Afghanistan. It said that flights within the Afghanistan airspace at or above FL 320 (32,000 ft) were safe to pass through.

Since the US troops withdrew from Afghanistan in August 2021 and the Taliban took over the country, most airlines across the globe have been avoiding Afghan airspace. This affected flights from Asia, particularly the Indian subcontinent, to Europe and North America to take a longer route and consequently burn more fuel.

A United Airlines Boeing 767-322ER arriving at Los Angeles International Airport.
Photo: Angel DiBilio/Shutterstock

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A quick scan of shows flights between India and Europe and the US take a circuitous route to avoid Afghan airspace. Some aircraft briefly pass over the Wakhan Corridor region, a narrow strip of Afghan territory wedged between Pakistan and Tajikistan.

Airlines reluctant

FAA’s latest decision allows airlines to save plenty of fuel, which accounts for a significant portion of their overall operational expenditure. So, why are airlines not keen on taking advantage of the revised rules?

American Airlines Boeing 777
Photo: Benson Truong | Shutterstock

There’s concern among carriers about the safety of such operations, particularly regarding the presence of surface-to-air weaponry in Afghanistan. While the FAA has said that such missiles do not pose a threat to flights above 32,000 feet, carriers want to err on the side of caution. The OPS Group, an organization for the aviation industry, commented on the issue:

“There's no ATC [air traffic control] service across the entire country, there's a seemingly endless list of surface-to-air weaponry they might start shooting at you if you fly too low, and if you have to divert, then good luck with the Taliban.”

Longer flights

Airlines operating flights to Asia from Europe and North America (particularly from the East Coast) have had to alter their routes significantly in the last few years. The situation in Afghanistan as well as the conflict in Ukraine, have meant that many Western carriers have to avoid vast stretches of airspace to reach their destinations.

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The Delhi-New York route is one such example. Both Air India and American Airlines offer this service, and both avoid flying over long stretches of Afghanistan. But Air India continues to fly north over Russia, while American Airlines has to take a sharp left for a longer route.

However, given the reaction of the US carriers to the FAA’s latest relaxation of rules, it seems that flights between the US and Asia will continue to take longer for some more time.

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