Reuters – Some major airlines were re-routing flights on Wednesday after Europe’s air traffic control agency warned aircraft flying in the eastern Mediterranean to exercise caution due to possible air strikes on Syria.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Western allies are discussing possible military action to punish Syria’s President Bashar Assad for a suspected poison gas attack on Saturday on a rebel-held town that had long held out against government forces.
A spokeswoman for Air France said the airline had changed some flights paths following the warning, including for Beirut and Tel Aviv flights, while budget airline easyJet said it would also re-route flights from Tel Aviv.
Aviation regulators have been stepping up monitoring of conflict zones since Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was downed by a surface-to-air missile over Ukraine in 2014, killing all 298 people on board.
Recent warnings have tended to be after military action has started, and so Eurocontrol’s preemptive notice suggests a heightening of regulatory scrutiny.
The Eurocontrol warning on its website did not specify the origin of any potential missile threat, but cited a document from the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), Europe’s safety regulator.
“Due to the possible launch of air strikes into Syria with air-to-ground and/or cruise missiles within the next 72 hours, and the possibility of intermittent disruption of radio navigation equipment, due consideration needs to be taken when planning flight operations in the Eastern Mediterranean/Nicosia FIR area,” it said, referring to the designated airspace.
The only commercial flights above Syria as of 0115 GMT on Wednesday were being flown by Syrian Air and Lebanon’s Middle East Airlines, according to flight tracking website FlightRadar24. At other periods later in the day, there were no flights using the airspace.
Eurocontrol included a broader area outside the airspace controlled by Damascus in its statement.
A spokesman for Germany’s Lufthansa said on Wednesday its airlines were aware of the Eurocontrol warning and were in close contact with authorities.
“As a proactive precaution, Lufthansa Group airlines have already avoided the airspace in the eastern Mediterranean for some time now,” he said.
Ryanair and British Airways representatives said flights were operating normally at their respective airlines, but the situation was being monitored closely.
A spokesman for Etihad Airways said the Gulf carrier continued to maintain high levels of surveillance across its network, but services to all destinations were “operating normally.”
The Nicosia flight information region named in the Eurocontrol statement covers the island of Cyprus and surrounding waters, according to a map on the agency’s website.
Air traffic in the region is usually busy, with many holiday flights serving the main Cypriot airports of Larnaca and Paphos. The southern sectors are used by aircraft connecting north-west Europe with Beirut, Amman and Tel Aviv, as well as traffic from Istanbul heading south-east to the Gulf and beyond.
There are three daily Aegean flights from Athens to Cyprus and more than 20 flights from the UK. British Airways has two daily services from Heathrow to Larnaca, as well as a flight from Gatwick to Paphos.
Ryanair has a departure from Stansted to Paphos on Wednesday and one on Thursday from Chania to Paphos.
easyJet flies to the Cyprus’ two airports from Bristol, Edinburgh, Gatwick and Luton.
Thomas Cook Airlines has flights on Wednesday to Larnaca from Belfast, Birmingham, Gatwick, Glasgow and Manchester, while Jet2.com has links to Larnaca and Paphos from Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds Bradford, Manchester and Stansted.