DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES —
Two years after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the United States has begun easing rules that could allow commercial airlines to fly over the country in routes that cut time and fuel consumption for East-West travel.
But those shortened flight routes for India and Southeast Asia raise questions never answered during the Taliban’s previous rule from the 1990s to the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
How do you deal with the Taliban as they engage in behavior described by United Nations experts as potentially akin to “gender apartheid”? Can airlines manage the risk of flying in uncontrolled airspace over a country where an estimated 4,500 shoulder-launched anti-aircraft weapons still lurk? And what happens if you have an emergency and need to land suddenly?
Who wants to fly over such a country? The OPSGroup, an organization for the aviation industry, recently offered a simple answer: “No one!”
“There’s no ATC [air traffic control] service across the entire country, there’s a seemingly endless list of surface-to-air weaponry they might start shooting at you if you fly too low, and if you have to divert, then good luck with the Taliban,” the group wrote in an advisory.
Still, the possibility of overflights resuming would have a major impact on carriers.
Although landlocked, Afghanistan’s position in central Asia means it sits along the most direct routes for those traveling from India to Europe and the United States.
After the Taliban takeover of Kabul on Aug. 15, 2021, civil aviation simply stopped, as ground controllers no longer managed the airspace. Fears about anti-aircraft fire, particularly after the 2014 shootdown of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine, saw authorities around the world order their commercial airliners out.
In the time since, airlines largely curve around Afghanistan’s borders. Some travel south over Iran and Pakistan. Other flights rush through Afghan airspace for only a few minutes while over the sparsely populated Wakhan Corridor, a narrow panhandle that juts out of the east of the country between Tajikistan and Pakistan.
But those diversions add more time to flights, which means the aircraft burns more jet fuel, a major expense for any carrier. That’s why a decision in late July by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration caught the industry’s eye when it announced flights above 9,750 meters (32,000 feet) “may resume due to diminished risks to U.S. civil aviation operations at those altitudes.”
The FAA, which oversees rules for U.S.-based airlines, referred questions about the decision to the State Department. The State Department did not respond to requests for comment. However, a State Department envoy has met multiple times with Taliban officials since the U.S. and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Taliban officials likewise did not respond to repeated requests for comment from The Associated Press over the lifting of the restrictions.
For now, outside of Afghan and Iranian carriers, it does not appear that any airline is taking chances over the country.
Part of that comes from the risk of militant fire: Afghanistan has been awash in aircraft-targeting missiles since the CIA armed mujahedeen fighters to fight the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Afghanistan also may still have Soviet-era KS-19 anti-aircraft guns, said Dylan Lee Lehrke, an analyst at the open-source intelligence firm Janes.
The FAA says it believes flights at or above 32,000 feet remain out of reach of those weapons, even if fired from a mountain top.
Despite the lack of interest now, airlines in the past used the route heavily. A November 2014 report from the International Civil Aviation Organization noted that from near-zero flights in 2002, overflights grew to more than 100,000 annually 12 years later.
Before the Taliban takeover, the government charged each flight $700 in fees for flying over the country, which could be a significant sum of cash as Afghanistan remains mired in an economic crisis.
The Taliban say they already are profiting from the limited overflights they see. Private Afghan television broadcaster Tolo quoted Imamuddin Ahmadi, a spokesman for the Transportation and Aviation Authority Ministry, as saying that Afghanistan had earned more than $8.4 million from overflight fees in the last four months.
The ministry also said it received the money from the International Air Transport Association, a trade association of the world’s airlines. However, IATA told the AP in a statement that its contract with Afghanistan to collect overflight fees “has been suspended since September 2021” to comply with international sanctions on the Taliban.
“No payments have been made since that date,” it said.