Qatar Airways, which flies daily between Philadelphia and the Qatari capital, Doha; stands to lose major revenue and customers after several Arab countries severed diplomatic ties with the tiny Middle Eastern nation.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt on Monday abruptly closed all land, air, and sea borders to Qatar amid simmering tensions and accusations that Qatar supports extremist groups such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, and has a close relationship with Iran.
After Saudi Arabia — Qatar’s neighbor to the west — shut its airspace to Qatar Airways, the carrier diverted flights Tuesday around the closed airspace, which will result in higher fuel costs and longer flight times.
“It’s unbelievable the circuitous route that they have to take now to get into Doha,” said Jeffrey Erlbaum, president of Eta Travel in Conshohocken, who uses an app that tracks planes in the air and their routes.
To reach Doha, the airline detoured over Iran and then down as opposed to flying across Saudi Arabia. To get to Africa, Qatar routed around Saudi Arabia by flying north, around the Arabian Peninsula, and then down. “It would be like New Jersey not allowing planes going into Philadelphia to fly over NJ air space. It’s crazy,” Erlbaum said.
Philadelphia-area passengers often choose Qatar Airways to fly to India or Africa, Erlbaum said. “From Philadelphia, it’s the only flight to the Middle East now. It is the quickest, easiest way to get to some places in India.”
Qatar, which is rated one of the top airlines in the world for service and amenities, should be able to weather the storm “as long as it’s not too prolonged,” Erlbaum said.
Longer-term, however, as much as 30 percent of Qatar Airways revenue could be affected by the diplomatic crisis, or a loss of $247 million compared with last year, analysts at Frost & Sullivan said. “All flights to Europe, North America, and Africa will be impacted, and timetables need to be adjusted,” said Diogenis Papiomytis, director of the aerospace and defense practice at Frost & Sullivan. “The question is whether we are talking about a new business environment or a short-term inconvenience.”
Philadelphia International Airport said there was no current impact on the Doha-Philadelphia flight, which arrived early at PHL Tuesday and departed on time.
Meanwhile, the Gulf carriers Etihad Airways in Abu Dhabi, Emirates Airline in Dubai, Flydubai, and Air Arabia suspended flights to and from Qatar Tuesday morning. Qatar Airways posted on its website that it had suspended all flights to and from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt until further notice.
“Airlines rely on the ability to fly over countries to get where they need to be,” said Brian Sumers, who writes about the global airline industry for Skift, a travel industry website. “Even if you take away the overflight issue, this is not going to be good for Qatar Airways and probably not good for the Philadelphia route,” he said.
“Qatar Airways, as a business, relies on carrying all this connecting traffic from Doha onward and a lot if it is going to disappear,” Sumers said. “If you are a business person in Philadelphia and you have to get to Dubai, two days ago flying Qatar Airways was a really good idea. It got you there efficiently and comfortably. Tomorrow you can’t do it.”
President Trump took credit Tuesday for the Arab countries’ decision to cut ties with Qatar, suggesting his recent trip to the region was the impetus. “During my recent trip to the Middle East, I stated that there can no longer be funding of radical ideology,” Trump tweeted. “Leaders pointed to Qatar — look! They said they would take a hard line on funding … extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!”