Thailand braced for Qatar ban chaos

The impact of Qatar’s neighbours closing their airspace to Qatar Airways could be significant to the region. (EPA photo)

CANCUN, MEXICO – The Gulf blockade on Qatar poses a potentially serious disruption of air passenger traffic between Thailand and the Middle East, one of the world’s busiest flight sectors.

The risk looms large as four neighbouring nations — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt — close their airspace to Qatar Airways, a major carrier in the sector.

The impact could be significant because the airline has a large aircraft capacity between Thailand and Qatar, industry executives who are familiar with the airline said.

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Qatar Airways operates five daily non-stop flights between Doha and Bangkok, double-daily Doha-Phuket flights and four Doha-Krabi flights a week. It has also set sights on the debut of the first Doha-Chiang Mai non-stop from Oct 31, with four flights a week.

The airline operates high-capacity wide-body jets such as Airbus 380 superjumbo, Boeing 777-300ERs and Boeing 787 “Dreamliner” jets between the two countries. The status of Qatar Airways’ Thailand-Qatar flights could not be confirmed as the airline could not be reached for comment.

Speaking to the Bangkok Post on the sidelines of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) World Airport Summit in Mexico on Tuesday, Bangkok Airways president Puttipong Prasarttong-Osoth said it was too early to assess the impact on Thailand with the development still unfolding.

However, he said the effects of the possible suspension of Qatar Airways flights to Thailand on Bangkok Airways, as one its largest code-share partners, could be substantial.

“Qatar Airways is one of the Big Three Gulf carriers, which together deliver nearly a third of overall code-share partners to our network,” he said.

The two others are the UAE’s Dubai-based Emirates and Abu Dhabi-based Etihad.

Mr Puttipong said an airspace ban on Qatar would mean Qatar Airways is effectively grounded.

Qatar is a small peninsula jutting out from the eastern seaboard of the Arabian Peninsula, with Saudi Arabia to the west and the UAE to the south and east.

The ban limits the inbound and outbound tracks of Qatar Airways flights to the north and northeast, out over the Gulf and, potentially, over Iran.

This means Qatar Airways has a potentially narrow strip to operate in, through friendly Iran, which would result in the airline altering its routes.

On some routes this will increase flight times, as well as Qatar’s fuel bill, although the airline has not yet said how much difference the changes would make to trip durations.

IATA, the airline industry’s trade body, has opposed the restrictions on air travel imposed on Qatar, saying air connectivity needs to be restored immediately.

“We are not in favour of the ban. We would like connectivity to be restored as soon as possible,” IATA director-general Alexandre de Juniac said in response to questions.

“The situation [in Qatar] is different from the laptop ban. It is a political, strategic, military decision. I will not comment on the decision,” he said. “However, we would like aviation relations and borders to reopen as soon as possible and connectivity restored — flights to and from Qatar and for all other airlines [operating in Qatar].”

Mr de Juniac said the IATA knew some countries have issued a Notice to Airmen with regards to the situation, a notice filed to alert aircraft pilots of potential hazards along a flight route or at a location that could affect the safety of the flight.

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