Q What has happened to jeopardise flights?
Tension is increasing in the Eastern Mediterranean following the use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria — where President Assad is being supported by Iran and Russia. President Trump has ratcheted up the conflict by tweeting: “Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’.”
As far as civil aviation is concerned, all that has happened up to now is that airlines have been warned by Eurocontrol: “Due consideration needs to be taken when planning flight operations in the Eastern Mediterranean/Nicosia FIR [Flight Information Region] area.”
The skies in the Eastern Mediterranean are controlled from a centre close to the Cypriot capital, Nicosia. Controllers cover an area roughly the size of England, stretching from the southern coast of Turkey to close to the shores of Egypt, Israel, Lebanon and Syria.
Q How significant is the danger to aviation?
The warning, which originated from European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) was a “be aware” message rather than indicating imminent danger.
Flights over conflict zones have been of serious concern since the loss of MH17 in 2014, when 298 passengers and crew were killed on Malaysia Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. The Boeing 777 was downed over eastern Ukraine by a Russian-made Buk missile.
Some airlines have already responded to the alert; easyJet tells me: “We will implement a number of precautionary measures including the rerouting of flights from Tel Aviv.”
British Airways, which like easyJet has a formidably good safety record, says: “Safety is always our highest priority and all of our flights are monitored on a constant basis. We would never operate a flight if it was not safe to do so.” All its flights to and over the affected area, to Paphos and Larnaca in Cyprus as well as Beirut, Amman and Tel Aviv, are operating normally.
Q What are the risks for people in Cyprus?
The island is only 60 miles from Syria at its closest point. Cyprus also has two “Sovereign Bases”, Akrotiri and Dhekelia, which remained British Overseas Territories after Cyprus became independent from the UK in 1960. (An assertion that Saddam Hussein could attack British personnel at the bases with a missile attack in only 45 minutes was one of the falsehoods used to justified the invasion of Iraq in 2003.)
The Akrotiri Sovereign Base Area is in turn home to two Royal Air Force bases. They could be directly involved in any military action in Syria, or provide support for US or French forces.
In theory Syria, or its Russian or Iranian allies, could take action against the Sovereign Bases or elsewhere in Cyprus to avenge an attack. But as the Foreign Office (FCO) has not issued any specific warning to British travellers to the island, the likelihood must be regarded as low.
Q I’m on holiday in Paphos at the moment with my two children. We are due to fly home on Sunday with Ryanair. We are very worried about the unfolding situation in Syria and are considering leaving early. Do you think it’s likely flights might be cancelled over the coming days?
During past conflicts close to Cyprus, flights in and out of the island have continued as normal; indeed at times British Airways has based flight crews in Larnaca, the main airport, to operate “shuttle” flights to Middle East. While there is no absolute guarantee that your flight will take place, Ryanair tells me: “Our flights are operating normally, we are continuing to monitor the situation and will advise customers of any changes to our schedules.”
Globally, Ryanair is second only to Southwest of the US in its superlative safety record, and like other airlines would not operate a flight if it was considered dangerous. Should the flight not go ahead for whatever reason, the airline is obliged to provide accommodation and meals until you can be flown home — possibly on a rival carrier.
Your main concern, of course, is whether you would be safe during a prolonged stay. Again, there are no certainties but the chances of coming to harm are extremely low — all the more so because Paphos is in the far west of Cyprus, as far from the conflict as it is possible to be on the island.
To be aware of any specific warning, follow the Foreign Office travel advice team @FCOtravel on Twitter. You will be among the first to know if anything changes.
Q I am due to fly from Glasgow to Paphos on 18 April. I’m unhappy with the destination due to the political situation and possible military action. I called the holiday company today to ask to change destination (not for a refund). They said that because there is no government advice against going, I would lose all my money if I were to cancel. Can I claim from travel insurance?
No. Travel insurers, like tour operators, take their cue from the Foreign Office. In the event that the Foreign Office warns against travel to a destination, several things happen. Package holiday firms will make arrangements to repatriate travellers as soon as possible. Airlines are very likely (though not legally obliged) to offer flexibility for travellers in the form of allowing date changes, alternative destinations or refunds. And while travel insurance will remain in effect for holidaymakers who are in the affected location until they can leave, any new arrivals (or people who decide to stay against official advice) are likely to find they are uninsured.
In the absence of any such advice, cancelling a forthcoming holiday would be counted as “disinclination to travel” and as far as I know is not covered on any policy.
TUI, the UK’s biggest holiday company, tells me: “Normal booking terms and conditions apply”.
As the situation in Cyprus, and elsewhere in the region, develops, it is possible that some tour operators will allow destination changes or postponements — but there is no legal obligation for them to do so.
Q I am going to the Gulf soon. How can I be sure that I will not be flying over the conflict zone?
You can’t; you must trust to the wisdom of the captain. Having said that, flights from London, Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Glasgow to Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Doha generally overfly the Black Sea, north-eastern Turkey and Iran, rather than the affected region.
If you have booked a flight via an intermediate point such as Rome or Athens, the most direct track crosses the Nicosia FIR, but again airlines are likely to adjust routings to avoid any possible danger.
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