Due to heightened tensions between India and Pakistan and an associated airspace closure in Pakistan, multiple airlines have been forced to divert, delay, or cancel a large number of flights which usually fly over the region. About 800 flights a day use the India-Pakistan route, making it a key air travel corridor between Asia and Europe. While the airspace has reopened with restrictions for flights from and to Pakistani airports on Friday, March 1, the airspace will remain closed to commercial flights until at least 13:00 (local time) on Monday, March 4.
The decision to reopen Pakistani airspace came amid signs that the conflict between the two nations was easing, as Pakistan prepared to return a captured pilot in a gesture of goodwill on March 1. India and Pakistan have been engaged in the most serious military confrontation in decades after Indian fighter plans were said to have killed hundreds of militants in a camp inside Pakistan earlier this week. The military action by India was triggered by a suicide bombing on Indian security forces in Kashmir in mid-February, which represented the deadliest attack on troops in Indian Kashmir since 1989. Pakistan then retaliated by shooting down an Indian aircraft and capturing a pilot, while India said it downed a Pakistani jet. India and Pakistan both control parts of Kashmir, but each claims the region in full.
Flight services to Pakistan and India to gradually resume
Following the closure of the Pakistani airspace on February 27, a number of airlines cancelled all flights to and from Pakistan, including those operated by Air China, SriLankan Airlines, Emirates, Etihad, Gulf Air, Qatar Airways, and Pakistan International Airlines. This brought direct air services, including cargo transportation from the Middle East and China, to Pakistan to a complete halt. While the Pakistani airspace has now reopened for flights from and to the country’s airports including Jinnah International Airport in Karachi on March 1, most airlines have yet to confirm whether they will resume operations to Pakistan in the coming days.
At the height of the escalations on February 27, Indian authorities also decided to temporarily close at least eight airports in northern parts of the country, which caused disruption to domestic operations. India’s largest carrier IndiGo and Jet Airways suspended flights to and from several affected airports including Amritsar, Jammu, Srinagar and Leh, Kullu-Manali, Kangra, Shimla, and Pathankot. In addition, air travel delays and disruptions were also reported at Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, with some 47 flights having been cancelled at the airport.
Extended travel times likely to persist between Asia and Europe
Shortly after the Pakistani airspace was closed, authorities in Afghanistan also closed its airspace to overflights, causing additional disruption. As about 220 daily services between Europe and Southeast Asia fly through the Pakistani airspace, the closures have forced airlines to reroute commercial flights carrying passengers and cargo to alternative airports such as Mumbai or Moscow for a refueling stop. According to available flight information, airlines mainly rerouted flights south of Pakistan over the Persian Gulf and through the Gulf of Oman, adding hours to normal flight times.
The impact was most severe on the flight operations of Thai Airways, Thailand’s flag carrier. On February 27 and 28, the airline cancelled all flights to airports in India, Pakistan, and Europe including Brussels, Paris, and London. It reportedly resumed flights to Europe on March 1 bypassing India and Pakistan by using China’s airspace. Delays were reported for Singapore Airlines’ flights to Europe as several services were diverted to Dubai to refuel before heading to their final destinations. Some return services from Europe were reportedly canceled.
Several flights between North America and India have and will, likely, continue to face extended transit times due to necessary refueling stops until normal schedules resume. On February 27 and 28, multiple United Airlines flights were redirected to London and Frankfurt, while Air Canada canceled most services to Delhi from Toronto and Vancouver due to a lack of suitable alternative routings.
Outlook and recommendations
On March 1, Pakistan was expected to release the captured Indian Air Force pilot whose plane was shot down on February 27 in the Kashmir region as a gesture of peace and a first step to open negotiations with India. The impending release suggests easing of tensions and could allow the parties to step back from the conflict, as any mistreatment of the pilot would likely have put pressure on the Indian government to retaliate. The decision to reopen Pakistani airspace for commercial overflights on March 4 is likely to go ahead as air traffic in its airspace represents an important revenue stream for the Pakistani government and any prolonged closure would harm its economic interests.
Until the airspace fully reopens and international flight schedules normalize, customers should continue to expect substantial delays on hundreds of flights as airlines continue to use routes north or south of Pakistan to avoid flying over the country. Due to high loads and the need to carry additional fuel in light of longer journeys, some commercial carriers offering services from South or Southeast Asia to Europe and North America may also decide to not carry cargo on flights until normal operations via Pakistan resume. This would cause additional delays to air freight shipments and potential rebooking costs to other, less direct commercial flights.