The U.S. Transportation Department (USDOT) said on January 17, that Virgin Atlantic had been penalised $1.05 M for flying over Iraq in restricted airspace.
A notification from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) forbade American carriers from entering Iraqi airspace without prior authorisation.
The Iraqi Airspace Ban: When & Why?
In March 2020, FAA prohibited US carriers from flying in the airspace over Iraq, Iran, the Gulf of Oman, and the waters between Iran and Saudi Arabia after Iran conducted a missile attack on US-led forces in Iraq.
The FAA said it issued the airspace ban “due to heightened military activities and increased political tensions in the Middle East, which present an inadvertent risk to US civil aviation operations”.
Many foreign airlines declared they would no longer fly over the impacted areas. After Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down by a missile in 2014 while flying over Ukraine, killing all 298 aboard, carriers have since taken more efforts to reduce dangers to their aircraft.
The Indian aviation watchdog, the DGCA, also urged Indian Airlines to reroute their flights and exercise all due caution in the airspace over Iran, Iraq, the Gulf of Oman, and the Persian Gulf to protect passengers.
The choice of a route depends on a number of conditions, and during the winter Air India’s westward flights employ Iranian routes to avoid protracted headwinds across northern latitudes.
However, as the DGCA had advised Indian airlines to avoid Iranian and Iraqi airspace, Air India’s flights to the US and Europe went across Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan instead.
The Violation of the Ban: Virgin Atlantic
The USDOT stated in a filing that the London-based carrier had used the Delta Air Lines code on flights between the UK and India between September 2020 and 2021 on many occasions when entering restricted airspace. As Virgin Atlantic was operating with a US-based carrier’s code, it was required to obtain approval from the FAA before flights.
Virgin Atlantic was penalised $1.05 million by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) for flying in areas where there was a flight ban in place from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The airline was told to stop and refrain from committing similar offences in the future.
“Virgin Atlantic takes seriously its responsibility to comply with all Department regulations and requirements in its operating permits, including the requirement not to operate flights carrying a U.S. carrier’s designator code that enter, depart, or transit the airspace of any area for whose airspace the FAA has issued a flight prohibition for U.S. civil aviation.
“Virgin Atlantic states that it has historically complied with this requirement, that it has a strong safety record and a robust culture of regulatory compliance, and that it is an industry leader in aviation security around the world.”–Virgin Atlantic said on Tuesday, January 17
In September 2021, the government alerted the airline of the violation for flights between London and India that passed over Iraq. Other foreign countries at the time allowed frequent, high-altitude flights over Iraqi airspace.
The USDOT decided after an enquiry that the carrier would have to pay a $1.05 million fine in three instalments of $525,000. The airline will only be required to make a fourth payment of $525,000 if the breach is repeated.
Virgin Atlantic allegedly informed the US Department of Transportation that the “prohibited overflights were inadvertent, caused by operational disruptions and loss of personnel due to the Covid-19 pandemic.”
After receiving a warning from the US government, the airline advised the department that “it immediately rerouted flights to avoid the airspace in question and informed its board and senior leadership of the issue.”
Virgin Atlantic invested in Sentinel by Osprey, an automated programme that dynamically warns airlines at the flight planning stage or operational stage, of any regulatory constraints affecting their, or their codeshare partners’ flights.