Thursday, 8 June 2017

GULF REGION: Uncertainty In Gulf Aviation, Over 100 Planes Grounded Or Delayed, Passengers Stranded

Dozens of Qatar Airways flights grounded as four nations close airspace, triggering fears for future of Gulf aviation.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt have closed their airspace to Qatari aircraft on Tuesday amid a deepening diplomatic row, forcing Qatar's flag carrier to re-route its flights over Iran, Turkey and Oman.

The decision by the four Arab nations to sever diplomatic ties and cut off sea and air links with Qatar has caused major disruptions to air travel across the Gulf and raised fears for the future of aviation in the region - home to several of the world's major long-haul carriers.

The countries that launched the measures against Qatar have accused it of supporting terrorism, a claim Qatar has called unjustified.

More than 70 flights were grounded across the region on Tuesday, according to data from scheduling firm OAG. A majority of the flights belong to Qatar Airways.

Other airlines affected include Dubai's Emirates, Abu Dhabi's Etihad Airways, Saudi Arabia's Saudia, and Bahrain's Gulf Air, which have all cancelled flights to and from Doha.

Alexandre de Juniac, the director general of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has expressed concern over the blockade and called for more openness.

We would like borders to be reopened, the sooner the better, he told reporters at the group's annual meeting in the Mexican city of Cancun on Monday. Aviation is globalisation at its very best.

The departure terminal at Doha's Hamad International Airport was virtually deserted early on Tuesday. More than 30 flights were shown as cancelled on airport television screens.

Qatar Airways, in a statement on its website, said passengers holding a confirmed ticket to any of the four Arab nations between June 5 and July 6 are permitted to rebook their flights up to 30 days after their current departure date.

The airline said its offices would continue to operate as normal in affected countries.

Saudi Arabia's General Authority of Civil Aviation, however, revoked the airline's license on Tuesday and ordered its offices to be closed within 48 hours.

Qatar Airways could not be reached for comment.

Meanwhile, many of the airlines' passengers were complaining online of delays in rebooking and obtaining refunds.

Analysts said the altered routes for Qatar Airways flights will lead to longer flying time, lowering demand, thus affecting the airline's profits.

An image posted online by flight tracking group Flightradar24 showed the restricted routes Qatar Airways flights were taking because of the blockade. The aircraft were being forced to take a single flight path in out of Doha.

Many of Qatar Airways' flights to southern Europe and Africa pass through Saudi Arabia. Flights to Europe will most likely be rerouted through Iran and Turkey, Flightradar24 said. Flights to Africa may route via Iran and Oman and then south.

The CAPA Centre for Aviation in Melbourne, Australia, in a report on Monday, said the Gulf diplomatic crisis has dealt a blow to public confidence in aviation and may have a far-reaching impact on the region's airlines.

There can be few winners, the group said, adding that the crisis has already created wider uncertainty for Gulf aviation and passengers whose bookings are months away.

The row between Gulf states is a fresh challenge for the region's airlines at a time when US President Donald Trump is trying to restrict the travel of passengers to the US from some Muslim-majority countries.

US authorities have also banned the use of most electronic devices on board aircraft from some Gulf countries.

Amidst growing security concerns and the existing laptop ban, passengers are unlikely to dig in to the reason for this ban. Gulf aviation becomes less attractive for all, CAPA said.

IATA's De Juniac meanwhile said profits and passengers have fallen sharply in the Middle East in recent months.

There is growing evidence that the ban on large electronic devices in the cabin and the uncertainty created around possible US travel bans is taking a toll on some key routes, he said.

Kuwait is trying to mediate a regional crisis in which Arab countries have cut diplomatic ties with Qatar and moved to isolate the energy-rich, travel-hub nation from the outside world, Qatar's foreign minister said.

Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain severed diplomatic relations with Qatar on Monday in a coordinated move, accusing the peninsula of supporting terrorists and Iran.

Yemen's internationally recognised government also cut ties with Qatar, accusing it of working with its enemies in the Iran-aligned Houthi movement.

The Maldives and Libya's out-of-mandate Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni later joined the Arab nations in saying they too would cut ties.

Sanctions include shutting down transport links, including closing borders, airspace and maritime territories, which led to fears of supply shortages.

Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said Kuwait's ruler, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah, had asked Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Qatar's ruling emir, to hold off on giving a speech about the crisis late on Tuesday night.

He received a call from the emir of Kuwait asking him to postpone it in order to give time to solve the crisis, Sheikh Mohammed said.

Sheikh Sabah called on Qatar's ruler to focus on easing tension and advised against making decisions that could escalate the situation.

Still, the Qatari foreign minister struck a defiant tone, saying his nation rejected those trying to impose their will or intervene in its internal affairs.

There are many analysts who believe that a potential break-up of the GCC has to be considered right now.

He added that if tension escalates, some have warned of a military confrontation.

If these countries fail to resolve their issues and such tensions reaches new heights, we have to be very open to the possibility of these six Arab countries no longer being able to unite under the banner of one council.

The dispute between Qatar and the Arab countries escalated after a recent hack of Qatar's state-run news agency. It has spiralled since.

As it cut ties on Monday, Saudi Arabia charged that Qatar was embracing various terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at destabilising the region, including the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL also known as ISIS and armed groups supported by Iran in the kingdom's restive east.

Egypt's Foreign Ministry accused Qatar of taking an antagonist approach towards Cairo and said all attempts to stop it from supporting terrorist groups failed.

Qatar denied the allegations, with a Foreign Ministry statement describing them as "baseless" on Monday.

The group issuing sanctions on Doha is clearly the imposition of guardianship over Qatar, which is in itself a violation of its sovereignty, and is rejected outright, the statement said.

The move came just two weeks after US President Donald Trump visited Saudi Arabia and vowed to improve ties with both Riyadh and Cairo to combat terrorism and contain Iran.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the move was rooted in long-standing differences and urged the parties to resolve them.