Two years after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the United States has begun easing rules that could allow commercial airlines to fly over the country in routes that cut time and fuel consumption for East-West travel.
But those shortened flight routes for India and Southeast Asia raise questions never answered during the Taliban's previous rule from the 1990s to the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
How, if at all, do you deal with the Taliban as they block women from schools and jobs, and engage in behavior described by United Nations experts as potentially akin to "gender apartheid?" Can airlines manage the risk of flying in uncontrolled airspace over a country where an estimated 4,500 shoulder-launched anti-aircraft weapons still lurk? And what happens if you have an emergency and need to land suddenly?
Who wants to fly over such a country? The OPSGroup, an organization for the aviation industry, recently offered a simple answer: "No one!"
"There’s no ATC service across the entire country, there’s a seemingly endless list of surface-to-air weaponry they might start shooting at you if you fly too low, and if you have to divert then good luck with the Taliban," the group wrote in an advisory, using an acronym for air traffic control.
A plane takes off Hamid Karzai International airport in Kabul, Afghanistan on August 4, 2022. (Photo by Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images)
Still, the possibility of overflights resuming would have a major impact on carriers.
Though landlocked, Afghanistan's position in central Asia means it sits along the most direct routes for those traveling from India to Europe and America. After the Taliban takeover of Kabul on Aug. 15, 2021, civil aviation simply stopped, as ground controllers no longer managed the airspace. Fears about anti-aircraft fire, particularly after the 2014 shootdown of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine, saw authorities around the world order their commercial airliners out.
In the time since, airlines largely curve around Afghanistan's borders. Flights rush through Afghan airspace for only a few minutes while over the sparsely populated Wakhan Corridor, a narrow panhandle that juts out of the east of the country between Tajikistan and Pakistan, before continuing on their way.
But those diversions add more time to flights — which mean the aircraft burns more jet fuel, a major expense for any carrier. That's why a decision in late July by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration caught the industry's eye when it announced flights above 32,000 feet (9,750 meters) "may resume due to diminished risks to U.S. civil aviation operations at those altitudes."
The FAA, which oversees rules for America-based airlines, referred questions about what fueled the decision to the State Department. The State Department did not respond to requests for comment. However, a State Department envoy has met multiple times with Taliban officials since the U.S. and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Taliban officials likewise did not respond to repeated requests for comment from The Associated Press over the lifting of the restrictions.
For now, outside of Afghan and Iranian carriers, it does not appear that any airline is taking chances over the country. Part of that comes from the risk of militant fire, as Afghanistan has been awash in aircraft-targeting missiles since the CIA armed mujahedeen fighters to fight the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Afghanistan also may still have Soviet-era KS-19 anti-aircraft guns, said Dylan Lee Lehrke, an analyst at the open-source intelligence firm Janes.
The FAA says it believes flights at or above 32,000 feet remain out of reach of those weapons, even if fired from a mountain top.
United Airlines runs a direct flight to New Delhi from Newark, New Jersey, that uses the Wakhan Corridor and could be shortened by an overflight.
"In accordance with current FAA rules, United operates Newark to New Delhi flights over a small section of Afghanistan where air traffic control is provided by other countries," United spokesman Josh Freed told the AP." We do not plan to expand our use of Afghan airspace at this time."
Virgin Atlantic flies over the corridor for its New Delhi flights as well. The United Kingdom has yet to change its guidance telling carriers to stay out of nearly all of Afghan airspace. Virgin Atlantic said it makes "ongoing dynamic assessments of flight routings based on the latest situation reports and always following the strict advice set out by the U.K."
American Airlines and Air India also use the Wakhan Corridor route. Those carriers did not respond to requests for comment.
Despite the lack of interest now, airlines in the past used the route heavily. A November 2014 report from the International Civil Aviation Organization noted that from near-zero flights in 2002, overflights grew to over 100,000 annually some 12 years later. Before the Taliban takeover, the government charged each flight $700 in fees for flying over the country — which could be a significant sum of cash as Afghanistan remains mired in an economic crisis.
And there is precedence for collecting overflight fees and holding them. After the 2001 U.S.-led invasion, authorities ended up releasing some $20 million in frozen overflight fees to Afghanistan's fledging government.
In the Taliban's telling, however, they already are profiting from the limited overflights they see. Private Afghan television broadcaster Tolo quoted Imamuddin Ahmadi, a spokesman for the Transportation and Aviation Authority Ministry, as saying that Afghanistan had earned more than $8.4 million from overflight fees in the last four months.
"Any flight which is crossing Afghan airspace should pay $700," Ahmadi said. "As the flights increase, it benefits Afghanistan."
The ministry also said it received the money from the International Air Transport Association, a trade association of the world's airlines. However, IATA told the AP in a statement that its contract with Afghanistan to collect overflight fees "has been suspended since September 2021" to comply with international sanctions on the Taliban.
"No payments have been made since that date," it said.
Associated Press writer Rahim Faiez in Islamabad contributed to this report.