FAA Orders U.S. Airlines To Bypass Iranian Airspace After Drone Shot Down

Jun 21, 2019
Originally published on June 21, 2019 9:41 am

The Federal Aviation Administration issued an emergency order early Friday prohibiting U.S. airlines from flying through a specific part of Iranian airspace, citing an "inadvertent risk" to civilian airplanes after Iran shot down a U.S. surveillance drone.

The order came hours after United Airlines suspended one of the longest routes it operates, a roughly 15-hour direct flight between Mumbai, India, and Newark, N.J., that typically passes through Iranian airspace. In a statement emailed to NPR, the airline said that "given current events in Iran," it decided to suspend flights between Mumbai and Newark after "a thorough safety and security review."

A United flight (UA48) due to depart late Thursday from Newark was canceled, and the airline's service in the opposite direction, from Mumbai to Newark (UA9239), was rerouted through Munich, Germany, early Friday.

The FAA order covers an overwater area of Iranian airspace above the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman only. It says U.S. flights through that area are prohibited "until further notice, due to heightened military activities and increased political tensions." The order cites a "potential for miscalculation or mis-identification" of U.S. aircraft.

"The risk to U.S. civil aviation is demonstrated by the Iranian surface-to-air 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 FAA says.

The downing of the U.S. Global Hawk drone was the latest in a series of incidents in the Gulf region that have heightened tensions between the Trump administration and Iran's leadership. It came after at least six attacks on oil tankers near the Gulf's Strait of Hormuz, a critical artery for global oil supplies. The U.S. blames Iran for the tanker attacks, but Tehran has denied any involvement.

Speaking with NPR's Morning Edition on Friday, Iran's U.N. Ambassador Majid Takht Ravanchi reiterated that Iran had nothing to do with the attacks on tankers, calling them "a very suspicious action."

"We have to find out who was responsible for this act," Ravanchi tells host Steve Inskeep.

The FAA's order comes less than two days after arrest warrants were issued in the case of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, a passenger plane shot down over eastern Ukraine nearly five years ago, killing all 298 people on board. Investigators believe it may have been inadvertently targeted by Russian forces or Russian-backed Ukrainian separatists mired in a conflict there.

The attacks on tankers and the targeting of a U.S. drone follow a year of escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran following Trump's decision to unilaterally withdrawal from a multination 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. That agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was meant to limit Iran's production of enriched uranium to put a lid on its ability to produce nuclear weapons.

Earlier this week, a spokesman for Iran's atomic energy agency said that Iran was within days of surpassing the limits imposed on its stockpile of uranium under the agreement.

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