Here for the long haul: How Qatar is overcoming the aviation blockade

Here for the long haul: How Qatar is overcoming the aviation blockade
Comment: Despite the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar which began in June last year, Qatar is more open than ever before, writes Alex Macheras.
6 min read
08 Jan, 2018
Qatar Airways flights between the most popular destinations are now more frequent [AFP]
The beginning of 2018 marks Qatar's seventh month under blockade, where the diplomatic dispute has remained mostly unchanged between the State of Qatar and its blockading  Gulf neighbours: Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt. 

Back in June 2017, and as part of the wider blockade against the state, these Gulf countries issued instant NOTAMS (notice to flight crew) announcing the immediate closure of their airspace to all Qatari registered aircraft, essentially eliminating Qatar Airways' two largest markets - Saudi Arabia and UAE - from both Qatar's passenger and cargo network.

For Qatar, the closure of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates' airspace had been the most critical. Qatar's own "airspace" is very small, and thus the airline relies on travelling through Bahrain's comparatively vast "airspace".

It's here that the blockade has, for the first time ever, put spotlight on the distribution of so-called "airspace" in the Gulf region, with many questioning how Qatar could have so little of it.

Sovereign airspace by international law corresponds with the maritime definition of territorial waters as being 12 nautical miles out from a nation's coastline. Airspace not within any country's territorial limit is considered international. When most people refer to "airspace", they're more often describing a "flight information region" shape (FIR). 

This map shows the FIR shapes in the Gulf, with Bahrain's FIR stretching from near to the UAE, along the coastline of Qatar and Bahrain. In June, when the Saudi-led blockade started, Qatari citizens immediately questioned how Bahrain ended up with such a vast amount of FIR space, given it's the smallest country in the Gulf.

When Bahrain and Qatar gained their independence from the UK in 1971, there was no change to the FIR shapes in the region, which had previously been determined according to where radars had initially been installed. It was maintained this way as a matter of administrative convenience, and seen as the better option, over equally distributing FIR's to each state, which would require flight crew to speak to four different air traffic controllers within the space of around 20 minutes.

With a history of good relations between Qatar and Bahrain, and both being signatory members of International Civil Aviation Organization's (ICAO - United Nations body for Aviation) Transit Agreement, Bahrain (along with signatory states UAE and Egypt) had committed under the agreement to permit scheduled flights from the state of Qatar to overfly their airspace.

However, if the continuing Gulf Crisis has exposed anything - it's that breaching ICAO treaties is a particularly grey area, and while the theory is clear, there isn't an official body to enforce the treaty itself.

UAE, Bahrain, Egypt and Saudi airspace is still closed to Qatari jets, and Qatar's UN representatives are preparing for a second hearing with ICAO later this year

ICAO hasn't dealt with a crisis like this in its 70 years of existence, and a complete closure of airspace is unprecedented for the UN body for aviation.

Shortly after the blockade began, Qatari representatives held their first hearing at ICAO's headquarters in Montreal, Canada, outlining how all blockading states were in breach of two key ICAO treaties, and in particular breach of ICAO's terms, stating that:

"Each contracting state reserves also the right, in exceptional circumstances or during a period of emergency, or in the interest of public safety, and with immediate effect, temporarily to restrict or prohibit flying over the whole or any part of its territory, on condition that such restriction or prohibition shall be applicable without distinction of nationality to aircraft of all other states."

Read more: Kuwait emir calls for GCC cooperation amid Qatar crisis

Following the hearing, ICAO urged all member states (including Saudi Arabia) "to comply with their conventions in order to preserve the safety, security, efficiency and sustainability of aviation in the region". 

New FIR routes were opened by UAE and Bahrain (see image above), allowing better access for Qatar Airways aircraft in and out of their Doha hub.

However, seven months on; the overflight of most areas controlled by blockading states is still forbidden, UAE, Bahrain, Egypt and Saudi airspace is still closed to Qatari jets, and Qatar UN representatives are preparing for a second hearing with ICAO later this year.

When Bahrain and Qatar gained their independence from the UK in 1971, there was no change to the FIR shapes in the region

It should be noted that Qatar Airways is the only registered commercial airline in the state of Qatar, meaning the air blockade has been a direct attempt by blockading states to bring on both disruption and financial difficulty at one of the world's five star airlines - and the largest competitor to UAE airlines Emirates and Etihad Airways.

Emirates Airline President Sir Tim Clarke told me in September at a conference in London, "Of course, with the Abu Dhabi government's decision to blockade and ban Qatar, we as an airline have benefitted" - a somewhat disappointing remark from an airline who consider themselves the "worldwide champion of open skies". 

Faced with a sudden air blockade, in the months that followed, Qatar Airways used it as a catalyst to accelerate their existing five years plan. Where it may have taken other airlines a few weeks or months to recognise the urgent need to adapt their aviation strategy, Qatar Airways wasted no time launching new routes in the Gulf to Oman, and further afield to Poland, Czech Republic, Turkey, Russia and Thailand.

[Click to enlarge]

The airline accelerated the introduction of new onboard services, introduced the best business class in the world - a "QSuite" offering double beds in Business Class (a first time for the aviation industry), and firmed up agreements to acquire stakes in airlines all around the world, from Cathay Pacific in Hong Kong, to Meridiana in Italy.

Flight crew adjusted overnight to the limited access routes in and out of Qatar, and the tone was kept positive both inside the airline, and in the state of Qatar by Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. Sheikh Tamim met with French president Macron and the president of Airbus Commercial Aircraft Fabrice Bregier, about signing another aircraft deal at the end of 2017.

The aircraft capacity freed up by the loss of Saudi and UAE routes has been redistributed across the Qatar Airways network, either on new routes, or to fly more frequently on popular ones, such as between Qatar and India. Qatar Airways will take delivery of their first A350-1000 in 2018, and will be the "launch customer" for this aircraft type.

Looking ahead to 2018, I expect the airline to expand its worldwide presence via new agreements, partnerships and acquisitions. It can continue to serve the worldwide market, while it boosts its work with Qatar tourism to offer "night stop layovers" - giving passengers a chance to actually visit the location they're flying through.

The importance of handling the situation with dignity, grit, poise and understanding will continue as the backdrop to showing the world that despite a blockade, Qatar is more open than ever before.

While the carrier is expected to announce a loss for FY2017-18, ending March 2018, the airline has solid plans to continue to replace lost destinations with new destinations within the next 12 months, and should continue to adopt the "global thinking" mentality that began seven months ago.

Alex Macheras is an aviation analyst, broadcasting on international networks including BBC News, Sky News & Al Jazeera. Macheras has covered the aviation side of the Gulf Crisis since June 5th.

Twitter: @AlexInAir

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.