It isn’t just Syrians who are worried about a potential strike on their country—especially those who live close to military bases. Airlines are also creating contingency plans and preparing for the worst.
Military activity won’t hit commercial airliners. It does, however, affect airspace in the Middle East for long-haul flights that have normal flights patterns in Syrian airspace or nearby. Emirates, the world’s second largest airline (behind United) stopped flights to Damascus last fall. Now, the company says it has redrawn existing flights to ensure safety around potential missiles that may fly. Etihad Airways, the national airline of the United Arab Emirates, has done the same. A spokesperson for British Airways says that it, too, would be affected, considering most intercontinental flights from the UK to Asia, India and Australia pass over the Middle East.
Several extra minutes, or even hours, on a re-routed flight doesn’t seem a high price to pay. Where things get dicier is whether the cost of extra fuel would be passed on to consumers. With unexpected events like forest fires or bad storms that cloud the skies, airlines usually absorb the cost of having to temporarily go out of their way. Should a Middle East conflict extend longer than a few weeks—as was the case in Iraq after 2003—airlines’ contingency plans could become permanent, leading to higher fares.
It’s all a hypothetical for now, airlines insist. More meaningful (and near-term) is how the prospect of an attack affects oil prices, which this week hit $110 per barrel, the highest in a year. If that price keeps rising, as it did in the summer of 2011, then it won’t just be Middle East flights that see a price uptick, but flights everywhere.