The U.S. on Friday barred American-registered aircraft from flying over Iranian-administered airspace in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman over the Revolutionary Guard shooting down a U.S. military surveillance drone, affecting a region crucial to global air travel.
The Federal Aviation Administration warned of a “potential for miscalculation or misidentification” in the region after an Iranian surface-to-air missile on Thursday brought down a U.S. Navy RQ-4A Global Hawk, an unmanned aircraft with a wingspan larger than a Boeing 737 jetliner and costing over $100 million. The U.S. said it made plans for limited strikes on Iran in response, but then called them off.
The FAA previously warned of a risk in the region, but Friday’s warning threw into stark relief a danger both it and analysts warned was real after the shooting down of a Malaysian Airlines flight over Ukraine in 2014. That could further imperil the bottom lines of Gulf long-haul carriers, which already have faced challenges under the Trump administration.
“The threat of a civil aircraft shoot-down in southern Iran is real,” warned OPSGROUP, a company that provides guidance to global airlines.
The FAA gave a similar warning in May to commercial airliners of the possibility of Iranian antiaircraft gunners mistaking them for military aircraft, something dismissed by Tehran some 30 years after the U.S. Navy shot down an Iranian passenger jet.
Iran had no immediate reaction to the U.S. announcement.
The FAA said its warning would affect the area of the Tehran Flight Information Region, without elaborating. The FAA’s operations center referred questions to its press office, which did not immediately respond to queries from The Associated Press. However, that likely only extends some 12 miles off of the Iranian coast, aviation experts said.
There are “heightened military activities and increased political tensions in the region, which present an inadvertent risk to U.S. civil aviation operations and potential for miscalculation or misidentification,” the FAA said. “The risk to U.S. civil aviation is demonstrated by the Iranian surface-to-air missile shoot-down of a U.S. unmanned aircraft system on 19 June 2019 while it was operating in the vicinity of civil air routes above the Gulf of Oman.”
The Persian Gulf is home to some of the world’s top long-haul carriers, who already have been battered by Trump’s travel bans targeting a group of predominantly Muslim countries, as well as an earlier ban on laptops in airplane cabins for Mideast carriers. The major carriers, Etihad, Emirates and Qatar Airways, as well as low-cost carriers, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Iran said the drone “violated” its territorial airspace, while the U.S. called the missile fire “an unprovoked attack” in international airspace over the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf. OPSGROUP said the Iranian weapons system that shot down the drone was comparable to the Russian Buk system used in the 2014 Malaysian Airlines shoot-down in Ukraine.
“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.