Sunday, September 28, 2014

Airlines' Access to Afghan Airspace in Jeopardy • Air Traffic Control Contract Needed by October 15

The Wall Street Journal
By Nathan Hodge And Margherita Stancati

September 28, 2014 10:17 a.m. ET

KABUL—Major airlines may be forced to avoid flying to or over Afghanistan—a key transit route from Europe to Asia—if the country fails to conclude a vital air-traffic-control contract by mid-October, Afghan and international officials say.

At issue is the transition of the country's airspace from coalition military to Afghan civilian control. Since the collapse of the Taliban regime in late 2001, Afghanistan's airspace has been under the supervision of U.S. and allied forces.

Daoud Ali Najafi, Afghanistan's minister of transport and civil aviation, said Afghanistan lacks qualified air-traffic controllers, so the Afghan government plans to hire a contractor to run its airspace while instructing the Afghans how to manage air traffic.

"It's very important for us," Mr. Najafi said. "Afghanistan can connect the Far East, Middle East and Central Asia."

Afghanistan is part of a key air corridor that links Europe and the countries of South and Southeast Asia. The air traffic that crosses Afghanistan above 29,000 feet is an important revenue generator for the Afghan government, which collects overflight fees to the tune of around $40 million annually, international officials say.

International airlines such as Dubai-based Emirates and Turkish Airlines, Turkey's national carrier, also operate flights to Afghanistan. Kabul has air connections to Istanbul, Dubai, New Delhi and several other regional cities.

As part of the planned withdrawal of international combat troops by the end of this year, the U.S. and its allies were planning to gradually hand control over airspace back to the Afghans this year. So far, officials say, Afghan foot-dragging has delayed the transition.

The Afghan government is in the process of reviewing bids for the contract, but Afghan and international military officials say that if a contract is not in place by Oct. 15, the U.S.-led military coalition would send out an advance notice saying Afghanistan would likely become uncontrolled airspace, meaning big commercial airlines might no longer fly over the country.

That could further complicate operations for international carriers, which have seen flight routes restricted over Syria and Iraq, where militants have acquired antiaircraft weapons. Those restrictions left Iran and Afghanistan as the most feasible transit corridors west of the Himalayan peaks that commercial carriers tend to avoid.

The downing of a Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July by a surface-to-air missile over eastern Ukraine led to further worries about commercial aircraft flying over war zones.

"We are no longer flying over eastern Ukraine, we are no longer flying over northern Iraq and Syria, and for very good reasons," said German Army Lt. Gen. Carsten Jacobson, Deputy Commander of the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force. "If you look at the route from London to Singapore alone, there's not that many chances to avoid Afghan airspace."

In mid-September, officials from Afghanistan, the U.S., Japan and the United Arab Emirates met in Dubai to discuss how to cover the costs for a new contract, which would cost up to $200 million over five years, Afghan and international officials said. At least two companies are bidding, officials say, including U.S.-based IAP Worldwide Services, which currently provides airspace management services on contract for the coalition.

The Afghans have pledged to cover a percentage of the overall cost, with the rest covered by international donors.

"If the airspace is declared ungovernable ... no one will be able to fly to or over Afghanistan, only military aircraft," said a senior Western official. "They [the Afghans] don't have the money and they are hoping the West will bail them out."

Added the official: "The problem is absolutely massive if it doesn't go through."

Afghan Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal confirmed that negotiations were under way with potential contractors, and suggested that Oct. 15 wasn't an absolute deadline.

"We are involved and now negotiating actively with a few qualified companies," he said. "We expect to conclude with one that offers the most competitive price compared to similar contracts regionally."

Mahmood Shah Habibi, deputy director general of Afghanistan's Civil Aviation Authority, said Afghan officials expect to pick a winner by the first week of October. But he acknowledged that Afghanistan faced a challenge in assuming control of sovereign airspace.

"We ourselves don't have any capacity—there are no Afghans to control the Afghanistan airspace," he said. "The last 12 or 13 years, the airspace was controlled by ISAF or Nato through a civilian contractor."

The downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, he added, had spurred the creation of a cell to coordinate military activities with civilian air traffic. While the Taliban and other insurgents do not have the kind of high-end weaponry used to down the Malaysian Airlines passenger plane, the U.S. plans to continue counter-terrorism missions on Afghan soil through 2016, along with military training activities.

"We don't want to have the issue that happened in Ukraine," Mr. Habibi said. "This is of concern to everyone in the world."

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