UPDATE: Iran 'certain' plane was not hit by missile despite video

2020-01-08 08:55
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Iran's civil aviation chief Ali Abedzadeh said Friday he was "certain" a Ukrainian airliner which crashed outside Tehran this week was not hit by a missile.

"One thing is for certain, this airplane was not hit by a missile," Abedzadeh told a news conference in Tehran after Britain and Canada both said intelligence sources suggested a catastrophic error by Iranian air defence batteries had downed the aircraft.

"The information in the black boxes ... is crucial for the aviation organisation to make a statement," Abedzadeh said, adding that they were intact and under examination.

Dismissing allegations against Iran, he said that "any remarks made before the data is extracted ... is not an expert opinion."

The statements from Britain and Canada came as video footage emerged that appeared to show the moment the airliner was hit.

The footage, which The New York Times said it had verified, shows a fast-moving object rising to an angle into the sky before a flash is seen, which dims and then continues moving forward. Several seconds later an explosion is heard.

"We have seen some videos. We confirm that the airplane was on fire for 60 to 70 seconds," Abedzadeh said.

But "that it was hit by something cannot be scientifically correct," he added. 

Iranian search and rescue teams have found the black boxes from a Ukrainian airliner that crashed on Wednesday soon after takeoff from Tehran's main airport, the country's civil aviation authority said.

"The two black boxes of the Ukranian 737 aeroplane that crashed this morning have been found," said the authority's spokesman, Reza Jafarzadeh, according to semi-official news agency ISNA.

However, Iran has stated it will not give the black box to Boeing, giving no indication who will be allowed to analyse its data.

German airline giant Lufthansa and Air France said on Wednesday it would not overfly Iran and Iraq "until further notice", after Tehran launched missiles at US bases in Iraq.

"We are no longer overflying Iran and Iraq until further notice," a Lufthansa spokesman told AFP, adding that Wednesday's daily Frankfurt-Tehran flight was cancelled, while Saturday's twice-weekly service to northern Iraqi city Erbil would also not depart."

UAE carriers Emirates Airline and low-cost Flydubai also said on Wednesday they had cancelled flights to Baghdad for "operational reasons".

"Emirates flights EK 943 from Dubai to Baghdad and flight EK 944 from Baghdad to Dubai on 8 January have been cancelled for operational reasons," Emirates Airline said in a statement. 

Dubai's budget carrier Flydubai also said it had cancelled its scheduled flight to Baghdad on Wednesday but operated other flights to Basra and Najaf."We are liaising with the relevant authorities and continue to monitor the situation closely," the airline said.There was no word immediately from other Gulf airlines on their flights to Iraq but some of them have continued to accept bookings to various Iraqi cities.Bahrain's Gulf Air on Friday suspended flights to and from Baghdad and Shiite holy city of Najaf until further notice.Kuwait Airways said on Twitter on Monday that its flights to Najaf, the only route it operates to Iraq, had been suspended for four weeks following the outbreak of violent protests for "safety" reasons. 

This also follows the Ukrainian airline crash in Tehran. Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Vadym Prystaiko confirmed the nationalities of the crash victims: 82 from Iran, 63 from Canada, two plus nine crew from Ukraine, 10 from Sweden, four from Afghanistan, three from Germany and three from the UK.

The Ukrainian airline whose plane crashed said the Boeing 737 was built in 2016 and checked only two days before the accident."The plane was manufactured in 2016, it was received by the airline directly from the (Boeing) factory. The plane underwent its last planned technical maintenance on January 6, 2020," Ukraine International Airlines said in a statement. 

The United States Federal Aviation Administration has said it would ban US carriers from operating in the airspace over Iraq, Iran and the Gulf of Oman and the waters between Iran and Saudi Arabia after Iran launched a missile attack on US-led forces in Iraq.

Tehran fired more than a dozen missiles from Iranian territory targeting at least two Iraqi military bases hosting US-led coalition forces, the US military said on Tuesday.

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".

The ban was announced after a Ukrainian airliner crashed near Tehran, shortly after take-off on Wednesday, with all 170 people on board the passenger plane killed, according to Iran's Red Crescent.  The cause of the crash has not been confirmed. 

Flight Radar reports a few carriers are rerouting their flights today to avoid either Iraq or Iran. 

"Scoot 734 normally flies from Singapore to Berlin through Iran. Kuwait Airways 103 generally transits Iraqi airspace en route to London. And British Airways is diverting two flights to Istanbul and rerouting two around Iraqi airspace."

Airspace ban

"The FAA is being proactive in protecting the airspace and ensuring that US-based aircraft and aircraft flying over the region are safe," Kyle Bailey, an aviation analyst who was previously a safety representative with the FAA, reports Al Jazeera.

Several non-US airlines had flights over parts of Iraq and Iran at the time, according to FlightRadar24 data. They are not directly affected by the FAA ban, but foreign carriers and their national regulators typically consider US advice carefully when deciding where to fly.

Before the latest guidance, the FAA had already prohibited US carriers from flying below 26,000 feet (7,925 metres) over Iraq and from flying over an area of Iranian airspace above the Gulf and Gulf of Oman since Iran shot down a high-altitude US drone last June.

Other airlines have also said they would stop flying over the airspace of both Iran and Iraq. 

Taiwan's largest carrier China Airlines said on Wednesday that it will not fly over Iran or Iraq due to regional tensions. The company said in a statement that it will continue to monitor the situation and adjust routes accordingly.

Singapore Airlines Ltd said after the attack on US bases in Iraq that all of its flights would be diverted from Iranian airspace. South Korean airline Korean Air said it had been avoiding Iranian and Iraqi airspace before the attack on US troops.

OPSGROUP, which advises airlines on security threats, said the new US airspace bans were "significant", particularly given that the entire overwater airspace in the region is now unavailable.

Carriers are increasingly taking steps to limit threats to their planes after Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down in 2014 by a missile over Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. Re-routing around conflict airspace adds to flight times and burns extra fuel.

An international aviation team has been activated to support "effective coordination and communication" between airlines and countries as tensions mount in the Middle East after a US drone attack killed an Iranian military commander, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said on Tuesday.

Airlines and the United Nations' aviation agency have started to monitor strategic airspace over Iran and Iraq. With some commercial carriers still serving those countries and others flying over their airspace, the IATA also issued a statement reminding countries of their obligation to communicate potential risks to civil aviation.

"It is critical that states live up to this obligation as tensions in the Middle East rise," IATA said, days after the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani on Friday plunged the region into a new crisis.

On Monday, Germany published a new warning for Iraq, indicating areas of concern for overflying traffic, according to a report published by OPSGROUP.

The coordination team operated by IATA and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) was activated as a "standard precautionary measure" in the event that contingency measures are required by airlines, IATA said in a statement to Reuters news agency.

The team brings together airlines, regulators and air navigation service providers to ensure any potential risks to aviation are shared quickly, an industry source familiar with the group said.

"Everyone's urging restraint," said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Airspace controlled by Iran and Iraq is seen as strategic for commercial aviation in the Middle East. If there were the need to shut down the airspace, carriers would have to be rerouted which would lead to greater congestion and fuel costs, said the source.

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