I’ll admit I was at first aghast at yesterday’s headline saying a commercial jet carrying Americans from Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, was intercepted and forced to land in Iran. It immediately brought to mind that the U.S. shot down an Iranian passenger jet in 1988, which Iranian officials still reference as an unresolved dispute between our two countries. What was the deal?
After taking a closer look at the story, I remembered the hassles with airspace certifications for the air carriers I worked with as a deployed Army loggie. Every nation controls its own airspace, and requires notification and permitting of any aircraft flying over, even if there is no intent to land. This is a procedure as standard as customs inspections at any nation’s border.
If flight times shift significantly, it is the responsibility of the air carrier to ensure that the proper notification (likely in the form of a flight plan or itinerary) and permits are current with each country an aircraft flies over. This is standard business, but sometimes it doesn’t happen. For example, I remember cargo flights I was counting on showing up within a particular timeframe that ended up being delayed–and then when the carrier failed to file the proper certification within the allotted window for one (or more) of the countries it was planning to fly over–the flights then had to be cancelled. This happened more than once in my experience. I know this can be expensive for the carrier, and it seemed negligent to me, but I can’t give a full explanation other than to say what I observed to be true. In short, flight plans and flyover certifications are no joke–this is completely comparable to customs or border crossings.
So when this Fly Dubai jet carrying 100+ American contractors, plus 40 or so foreign nationals, took off from Bagram (delayed, as anyone who’s ever flown in or out of Bagram knows to be common enough for a number of reasons) and passed over Iranian airspace–and the Iranian air traffic controllers indicated that the aircraft was outside of the allowable window for their flight plan–it seems to me the Iranian controllers were simply doing their jobs. They told the plane to return to its origin–which appears to me a reasonable request given that the airline should’ve known it was out of compliance. When the pilot said the aircraft didn’t have enough fuel, the Iranian air controllers merely asked them to land until the appropriate requirements were met. Again, this appears completely reasonable to me.
What is unclear to me is why a chartered flight would pass over Iranian airspace, though. I don’t say this as opinion, but rather as curiosity. The FAA places restrictions on American aircraft regarding Iranian airspace, so it’s simply an eyebrow-raiser for me, even though the aircraft appears to have been contracted by NATO. Flying over Iranian airspace from Afghanistan is definitely the most cost-effective route to anywhere west of Afghanistan, and U.S. aircraft having to fly around Iran has doubtless expended an enormous amount of costly jet fuel over these past 13 years.