Airlines avoid Afghan airspace as Kabul airport closes to commercial flights

Airlines avoid Afghan airspace as Kabul airport closes to commercial flights
Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images

Major international airlines are scrambling to reroute flights away from Afghan airspace as the country falls to the Taliban, disrupting passenger services to India, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.

On Monday, United Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, Emirates and Flydubai all announced changes to flights to or over Afghanistan, saying that they would monitor the situation as chaotic scenes unfolded at the main airport in Kabul, the nation’s capital.

“Due to the dynamic nature of the situation, we have begun routing affected flights around Afghanistan airspace,” a United Airlines spokesperson said in a statement early Monday morning local time, adding that it would continue to work closely with authorities to “determine how we continue service to markets impacted.”

The changes affect United flights to India.

Virgin Atlantic also said that it would reroute its upcoming services to India and Pakistan after “the latest situation reports in Afghanistan.” Starting Monday, the carrier’s flights to the cities of Islamabad, Lahore, Mumbai and New Delhi, which usually fly over Afghanistan, will be diverted to avoid the country’s airspace.

“The health, safety and security of our customers and people always comes first,” a Virgin Atlantic spokesperson said in a statement.

Lufthansa, the German airline, also said that it was “rerouting flights to avoid Afghan airspace until further notice.”

“As a result, the flight time to India and other destinations will be extended by up to one hour,” a spokesperson told CNN Business.

Cut off

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country Sunday, hours before Taliban fighters took control of the presidential palace in Kabul.

A growing number of countries are now working to evacuate their citizens from Afghanistan, including the United States, South Korea and New Zealand.

On Monday, the Afghanistan Civil Aviation Authority announced that commercial flights had been canceled out of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. The civilian side of the airport is closed, according to a notice to airmen. Evacuation flights organized by foreign governments were still taking off.

Several carriers had already announced plans to cancel services. Both Emirates and Flydubai — a government-owned budget carrier — said that services to and from Kabul had been suspended.

There were scenes of pandemonium early Monday at the airport, where hundreds of people flooded the tarmac and large crowds were seen attempting to board aircraft.

Air India was one of the few remaining airlines still running a regular service to and from Kabul prior to the announcement of the suspension of all commercial flights.

Hours earlier, the carrier had said that it was trying to operate its scheduled flights for Afghanistan, “situation permitting.” But an Air India flight scheduled to depart to Kabul at 12:30 p.m. local time, or 3 am E.T. on Monday, was canceled just shortly before takeoff.

The plane was due to leave from New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport and pick up passengers in Kabul before returning to India, an airline spokesperson told CNN Business.

US airlines were already operating under new restrictions imposed by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in July, which prohibited them from operating at certain altitudes in Afghanistan, “with the exception of operations into and out of Hamid Karzai International Airport.”

— CNN’s Manveena Suri, Angus Watson and Jonny Hallam contributed to this report.

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