Trump sanctions bite as Europe-Iran flights grounded

Trump sanctions bite as Europe-Iran flights grounded
Air France and British Airways announced that they will halt flights to Tehran in September citing 'low profitability' as the US re-imposed sanctions on Iran.
5 min read
17 September, 2018
Logos of airline companies on a shuttered window of a travel agency in Tehran [Getty]
"We are very excited to be launching our new six times a week service, direct from Heathrow to Tehran. The recent lifting of sanctions has effectively allowed Iran to re-open for business and paved the way for commerce to re-connect with Iran's economy." These were the enthusiastic words of British Airways' Head of Network, just two years ago.

But in around three weeks time, BA, along with French flag carrier, Air France, and the national airline of the Netherlands, KLM will all withdraw from Iran by cancelling all of their flight routes to Tehran.

The airlines join a long list of other global airlines including UAE's Etihad Airways, Kazakh carrier Air Astana, and Thai Airways, who left Iran a while ago, citing a "poor financial outlook" amid a year's worth of rumours that the Trump administration were set to reinstate tough sanctions on Iran, as part of a campaign promise.

A few months prior to Trump standing at the presidential podium inside of the White House to announce the return of strong US sanctions to Iran, Air France had reduced its Iran flights to one-per week, while BA continued to fly six times weekly.

Both carriers kept quiet during media reports of an upcoming announcement from the White House.

On May 8, Trump announced the return of sanctions to Iran, eliminating the prospect of future global business links with the Islamic Republic, and leaving the next move to businesses, including airlines. 

"Companies doing business with Iran will be barred from the United States," Trump threatened.

Four weeks later, KLM had announced that "as a result of the negative financial outlook for the Tehran operation, the last flight will take off from Amsterdam on September 22 2018."

A Dutch source working with the US Embassy on Museumplein in Amsterdam told The New Arab that the US had "nodded" to KLM's decision.

"It's as the noise surrounding who wasn't adhering to the Iranian sanctions grew louder," the source said. "At least for us in the Netherlands, KLM is an important ambassador for our country."

Two months later – on August 7, US President Trump took to Twitter, saying: "The Iran sanctions have officially been cast. These are the most biting sanctions ever imposed, and in November they ratchet up to yet another level. Anyone doing business with Iran will NOT be doing business with the United States. I am asking for WORLD PEACE, nothing less!"

Trumps tweet put airlines such as British Airways into a difficult position. At this point, BA was continuing to fly to Tehran as normal, and although it is now a private company, it still carries the Union Jack flag on its tail, thus serving the United Kingdom as the national airline.

The British carrier had stable load factors on flights to Tehran, albeit for the "visiting friends and relatives" traveller type, of whom would fill up most of the Economy Class cabin. The decision for BA to ensure the aircraft was always a four-class 777 (which included a First Class, in addition to Business Class) was also strategic, as BA recognised a premium traveller demand on their almost-daily Iran route.

Read also: Iran's flight safety crashing amid Trump silence on sanctions renewal

Under the backdrop of the ever-emphasised "special relationship" between UK and US, British Airways decided it was time to bite the bullet. Two weeks after Trump's August 7 tweet, Air France and British Airways said they will suspend services to Iran, citing the reduced commercial viability of the route in the wake of the latest US sanctions.

While both airlines insist it is not a political move, the August 7 tweet left government officials in a rush to ensure their respective flag carrying airlines axe their non-stop flights to Iran, leaving both BA and Air France schedules to withdraw from Iran on the same day this month.

Now, Lufthansa, Austrian Airlines and Alitalia remain the only European airlines flying to Iran from the EU. Lufthansa has a long history of flying to Iran (even during the previous set of sanctions) and the airline says there is currently no planned change to their schedule – good news for Iranians trying to fly to Tehran, but not the news the US was expecting to hear from the German flag carrier, especially after Trump's tweets.

While other parties to the Iran nuclear deal Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia have vowed to stay in the accord, it seems it's not just their companies that risk huge US penalties if they keep doing business in Iran – but as Trump said "anyone." 

For now, the handful of airlines left flying to Iran, including Lufthansa, Qatar Airways, and Austrian Airlines will continue to do so, while Trump remains relatively "quiet" on his August threats.

Nevertheless, should the US president double-down on his "Anyone doing business with Iran will NOT be doing business with the United States" statement, the complexities will multiply, given the vast links that still exist between countries and Iran.

Will Heathrow be permitted to allow Iran Air to continue its operations to the UK airport? Will French-Italian aircraft manufacturer ATR face penalties for delivering new jets to Iran just hours before the sanctions returned? As with the eventual outcome of most of Iran's news, time will tell.

Alex Macheras is an aviation analyst, broadcasting on international networks including BBC News, Sky News and Al Jazeera. Macheras has covered the aviation side of the Gulf Crisis since June 2017.

Follow him on Twitter: @AlexInAir