Syria Strike: Eurocontrol Warns Airlines Over Missiles in Eastern Mediterranean

President Trump and Western allies are discussing possible military action in response to Syrian President Assad's suspected poison gas attack on a rebel-held town

File photo: USS Barry launches a Tomahawk cruise missile.
DVIDSHUB / Wikimedia Commons

Pan-European air traffic control agency Eurocontrol on Tuesday warned airlines to exercise caution in the eastern Mediterranean due to the possible launch of airstrikes into Syria in the next 72 hours.

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Eurocontrol said that air-to-ground and cruise missiles could be used within that period and there was a possibility of intermittent disruption of radio navigation equipment.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Western allies are discussing possible military action to punish Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, for a suspected poison gas attack on Saturday on a rebel-held town that long had held out against government forces.

Trump on Tuesday canceled a planned trip to Latin America later this week to focus instead on responding to the Syria incident, the White House said.

Trump had on Monday warned of a quick, forceful response once responsibility for the Syria attack was established.

Recent warnings have tended to be after military action has started, and so Eurocontrol’s pre-emptive notice suggests a heightening of regulatory scrutiny.

The Eurocontrol warning on its website did not specify the origin of any potential missile threat.

“Due to the possible launch of airstrikes into Syria with air-to-ground and/or cruise missiles within the next 72 hours, and the possibility of intermittent disruption of radio navigation equipment, due consideration needs to be taken when planning flight operations in the Eastern Mediterranean/Nicosia FIR area,” it said, referring to the designated airspace.

Aviation regulators in countries including the United States, Great Britain, France and Germany have previously issued warnings against airlines entering Syrian airspace, leading most carriers to avoid the area.

The only commercial flights above Syria as of 0115 GMT on Wednesday were being flown by Syrian Air and Lebanon’s Middle East Airlines, according to flight tracking website FlightRadar24. At other periods later in the day there were no flights using the airspace.

Eurocontrol included a broader area outside the airspace controlled by Damascus in its statement.

A spokeswoman for Air France said the airline had changed some flights paths following the warning, including for Beirut and Tel Aviv flights, while budget airline easyJet said it would also re-route flights from Tel Aviv.

A spokesman for Germany’s Lufthansa said Wednesday its airlines were aware of the Eurocontrol warning and were in close contact with authorities.

“As a proactive precaution, Lufthansa Group airlines have already avoided the airspace in the eastern Mediterranean for some time now,” he said.

Ryanair, British Airways, Etihad Airways, and Royal Jordanian representatives said flights were operating normally at their respective airlines, but the situation was being monitored closely.

Emirates also said it was closely monitoring the situation and that it would “make adjustments as needed”.

EgyptAir is not currently planning changes to flight paths following the warning, a source close to the matter said.

Israel’s flag carrier El Al declined to comment. EgyptAir and several other major airlines that fly in the area did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

The Nicosia flight information region named in the Eurocontrol statement covers the island of Cyprus and surrounding waters, according to a map on the agency’s website.

The same map did not designate any specific territory as being the “Eastern Mediterranean” region.

There has been heightened awareness by regulators and airlines of the risks that conflict zones pose to commercial jets since Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was downed by a surface-to-air missile over Ukraine in 2014, killing all 298 people on board.

Last year, North Korea tested missiles without warning, leading some airlines to re-route flights to avoid portions of the Sea of Japan.

Eurocontrol’s warning cited a document from the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), Europe’s safety regulator.

EASA warned of a danger to aircraft flying over Iran, Iraq, and the Caspian Sea in October 2015 after Russia fired cruise missiles at Syrian targets from the Caspian Sea.

An EASA spokesman said it had informed member states and Eurocontrol of its cautionary message on Tuesday.