Following a twenty year struggle, Afghanistan has once again fallen to the Taliban. Just as the United States is completing its withdrawal of troops, the capital city of Kabul was captured by Taliban forces on Sunday, August 15, as Afghan President Ghani fled the country.
This impact on stability has led to immediate impacts on aviation. On the day of the takeover, Emirates flight EK640 was forced to divert back to Dubai just as the Boeing 777-300ER was about to land in Kabul. Another flight, Air India 243, an Airbus A320neo, was also held for several hours before being given clearance to land. A NATO spokesperson said that only military aircraft would be allowed into Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport until further notice. Foreign airlines have almost unanimously decided to suspend service to and from Afghanistan, including avoiding Afghan airspace.
Sharply remembering Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, a Boeing 777-200 shot down over the Donbass region in Ukraine in 2014, airlines are well aware of the implications of flying over an active war zone, and keen to avoid a repeat. Many airlines such as United Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, and British Airways have announced they are not using Afghan airspace, with a United Airlines spokesperson noting that the change affects several of the airline's flights between the U.S. and India.
Both Emirates and Air Arabia immediately announced the suspension of all services to and from Afghanistan. Flydubai also announced the suspension of service, with a spokesperson stating that "a return flight from Kabul to Dubai would operate on Sunday after which services would be suspended until further notice."
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) imposed new flight restrictions over Afghanistan for U.S. airlines in July. The previous policy prohibited non-military flights below 26,000 feet in the Kabul Flight Information Region, which largely covers Afghanistan, unless operating in and out of Hamid Karzai International Airport, citing the risk "posed by extremist/militant activity." With the current situation and collapse of the U.S.-backed Afghan government, it is uncertain how the policy will continue under the new regime.
Iran, however, has stated that it will assess the situation before deciding whether or not to terminate flights. Iranian carrier Mahan Air has a flight set to operate from Tehran Mehrabad on Monday, August 16. In addition, according to Flightradar24 ADS-B data, both major Afghan carriers, Ariana Afghan Airlines and Kam Air, were active in Kabul until August 14, a day before the takeover.
Kabul airport is currently swamped, as foreign governments struggle to evacuate personnel and civilians try to escape, with some even describing the scene as a "Saigon moment."
Recent videos and images have surfaced showing complete chaos at the airport, and many are stuck following the mass cancellation of flights.
It is still unclear what the security situation is. Reports have indicated firing from Taliban at the airport, and ABC News reports that 1,000 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne division of the US Army are being sent to Afghanistan to assist in the evacuation. As the Taliban closes in on Kabul airport, foreign governments are desperately trying to rescue personnel and civilians before the last domino falls.
What will this mean for the future of aviation in Afghanistan and the region in general? That will largely depend on how and whether the country transitions governments. If the U.S.-backed Afghan Government retake control, it is likely that the situation will be similar to before the takeover. If the Taliban return to power, however, it will entirely depend on the agreements forged with other nations, until a safe enough environment is achieved for airlines to resume service.
Following a twenty year struggle, we can only wait and see how the situation panders out.
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