Today (June 9, 2017): Is it safe to fly Qatar Airways?
Qatar is at the center of the biggest political crisis to hit the Middle East in years, following the severing of diplomatic ties by several countries in the region this week. The events have a major and unprecedented impact on air travel, with cancellations of flights and restriction of airspace, hereby triggering fears for future of Gulf aviation. Qatar Airways, one of the world’s most popular airlines, is badly hit by this crisis, worrying many of its passengers that are scheduled to fly with the prestigious carrier over the coming weeks. I hereby share with you some key facts that you need to know about the crisis and its impact on Qatar Airways:
- What happened?
- Why did it happen (and why now)?
- What are the consequences?
- What is the impact on Qatar Airways?
- What is the impact on other airlines?
- Is Qatar a safe country to visit?
- Is it safe to fly Qatar Airways?
Early on Monday June 5th, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen announced that they were breaking diplomatic ties with Qatar. This list of 5 countries later expanded to nine, with the addition of the Maldives, Mauritius, Mauritania, and Libya’s eastern-based government. Jordan also announced a downgrade of its diplomatic representation with Qatar.
Why dit it happen (and why now)?
My blog is about travel and not about politics. But to give you some information on the crisis, the official declaration of Saudi Arabia is that the move was due to Qatar’s “embrace of various terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at destabilising the region”, naming the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic State and al Qaeda. However, the government in Doha insists that “these measures are unjustified and based on false claims and assumption” and that the decision was a “violation of its sovereignty”.
Although the exact reason for the diplomatic crisis (and why it took take place right now) is unclear, it may have been triggered by comments allegedly made by Qatar’s Emir – Sheikh Tamim Al Hamad Al Thani – that were published by the Qatar News Agency website and other government media platforms. The emir was quoted as saying: “Iran represents a regional and Islamic power that cannot be ignored and it is unwise to face up against it. It is a big power in the stabilization of the region”. However, Qatar insists that the emir never said those comments and that the Qatar News Agency website was hacked. It was reported by CNN that US investigators believe Russian hackers were behind it in an attempt to create a rift among the US and its allies in the region.
- Shut down the Al Jazeera media network and its affiliates.
- Halt the development of a Turkish military base in the country.
- Reduce diplomatic ties with Iran.
- Cut ties to terrorist organizations.
- Stop interfering in the four countries’ affairs.
- Stop the practice of giving Qatari nationality to citizens of the four countries.
It is important to realize that relations between the Gulf countries and their royal families have been tense for many years. In March 2014, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates already temporarily removed their ambassadors from Qatar, citing interferences of Qatar with their own internal affairs. The tensions are mostly explained by the fact that Qatar (1) maintains good relations with Iran, (2) broadcasts the Al Jazeera television channel; and (3) is accused by its neighbors of supporting political Islamic movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. These tensions were exacerbated by the Arab Spring in 2011, when Saudi Arabia and Qatar were seen as backing different sides.
What are the consequences?
The diplomatic crisis has major consequences for Qatari people, expats living in Qatar, tourists in Qatar, and travelers transiting via Doha.
- Saudia Arabia closed the only land border of Qatar, effectively isolating the nation from the rest of the world
- All countries that cut their ties with Qatar ordered their citizens out of Qatar.
- Three Gulf states (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain) gave Qatari visitors and residents two weeks to leave their countries.
- Qatari diplomats have been given notice to leave their foreign posts.
- Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrein closed their harbors for Qatari vessels or ships owned by Qatari companies or individuals.
- Saudi Arabia and Egypt closed their airspace to Qatari aircraft. Bahrein requires all aircraft not registered in Bahrain to obtain prior approval to fly in or out of Qatar through Bahraini airspace (which completely surrounds Qatar). UAE went a step further and closed their airspace to all air traffic coming from or going to the Qatari capital of Doha.
As for now, nobody knows how long the land, air and sea boundary closures will remain in effect.
What is the impact on Qatar Airways?
The severing of diplomatic ties with its neighboring Arab countries has a major impact on Qatar Airways, which is one of the most popular airlines on the planet, especially for travel from Europe to Asia, and India to the USA.
- The affected nations – except for the Maldives (at the time of writing) – have revoked the landing rights of Qatar Airways, ordering the airline’s offices in their countries to be closed within 48 hours and banning all Qatar Airways planes from landing in their airports. Qatar Airways has now cancelled all flights to the affected nations (except for the Maldives), which previously made up a large chunk of its business.
- Qatar Airways is also grappling with severely restricted airspace, since its planes are not allowed anymore to fly over Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the UAE. All Qatar Airways aircraft now have to fly through Iranian airspace and can only depart and arrive at Doha via a narrow aerial channel, since Bahraini airspace completely encircles Qatar.
This means that Qatar Airways is suffering badly at the moment. Because of cancelled flights in the region, they have to refund thousands of tickets and take care of their stranded passengers. For example, yesterday, Qatar Airways chartered several Oman Air planes to get their passengers stranded in Saudi Arabia back home. In addition, the restricted airspace and re-routing over Iran means that some Qatar Airways flights are taking longer than normal and therefore burn more fuel and become less attractive to travelers, which will have a financial impact on the airline.
To give an idea, before the conflict, Qatar Airways used Saudi Arabia’s airspace to get from Doha to Beirut, resulting in a flight time of approximately 3 hours and 40 minutes (flight path shown below).
However, since the start of the conflict, Qatar Airways flies over Iran and Turkey towards Beirut, which results in 30 minute extra flight time (flight path shown below).
What is the impact on other airlines?
How safe is Qatar?
At the moment Qatar is a perfectly safe place to visit. However, there are some things to take into consideration when you visit the kingdom.
- Food and water imports are affected as Saudi Arabia closed its land border with Qatar, stranding thousands of trucks carrying supplies. Qatar, a country heavily dependent on food imports to feed its mostly foreign population of 2.6 million, has assured residents it has taken measures to ensure that normal life continues, although that does not stop people in Qatar to flock to supermarkets to stock up on food and water. Amongst other measures, the country is in discussions with Iran and Turkey about securing its food and water supplies to stave off possible shortages.
- According to US officials, there is an increased Qatari military activity as the country placed its forces “on the highest state of alert” over fears of an imminent military incursion.
My advice is to always stay up to date with the latest information as provided by the foreign ministry of your home country.
How safe is it to fly Qatar Airways?
From a safety perspective, I would not hesitate to fly Qatar Airways. They have an impeccable safety record. However, it is important to notice that while the airline is very safe, the country Qatar itself does not meet all 8 safety parameters as recommended by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), hence reflecting why the airline does not have a perfect safety score on Airline Ratings.
However, the retraction of the landing rights and closure of airspace does have a major impact on the airline:
- At the moment, you cannot fly anymore with Qatar Airways to Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen. If you are heading to one of these nations and you have already booked your flight with Qatar Airways, you will have to request a refund with the airline or request a rebooking on another carrier.
- Qatar Airways aircraft now have to fly through Iranian airspace. These altered routes lead to longer flying time, hereby lowering demand and increasing fuel costs, and thus affecting the airline’s profits. In addition, it may also affect your time in transit in Doha and make you miss a connecting flight. So in case you have a flight on Qatar Airways in the coming weeks, you better check your itinerary to make sure that you will still be able to get to your destination in time.
At the moment, I would not hesitate flying Qatar Airways, as long as my country of departure or end destination is not a country in the Gulf area (except for Qatar itself, and the countries of Kuwait and Oman who stay neutral in the diplomatic conflict). However, I would be more hesitant about booking at ticket with Qatar Airways to the Maldives, since I am not sure whether the carrier will be banned from flying to the Indian Ocean archipelago when the crisis continues (and that’s a shame, since Qatar Airways offers one of the best connections for travel to/from the Maldives since they have 2 flights a day between Doha and Male). Let’s hope that the situation resolves quickly, since Qatar Airways offers a stunning onboard product, that I have written a lot about over the past few years in my top 10 lists and trip reports:
- Top 10 best airlines for flying longhaul First Class
- Top 10 best airlines for flying longhaul Business Class
- Review of Qatar Airways’ Business Class in a Dreamliner
- Review of Qatar Airways’ Business Class in a Boeing 777-300ER
- Review of Qatar Airways’ Business Class in an Airbus A330-300
- Review of Qatar Airways’ First Class in an Airbus A380