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U.S. Fines Emirates for Entering Restricted Iraqi Airspace

Emirates flew with a JetBlue codeshare agreement, giving the Department of Transportation jurisdiction.

Emirates Airlines has been fined $1.8 million by the United States Department of Transportation (DOT) for violating airspace restrictions over Iraq. An initial fine of $1.5 million is payable in cash, with the other $300,000 payable if Emirates violates any portion of the order within one year from its June issuance date.  

According to the DOT, multiple Emirates flights between December 2021 and August 2022 entered Iraqi airspace below 32,000 feet, which the FAA has declared off-limits for U.S. airlines and pilots. Although Emirates is a foreign airline operating in foreign airspace, FAA rules apply to the Emirates flights because they were codeshare flights with the U.S. carrier JetBlue. This means that JetBlue had the ability to sell the flights to U.S. consumers with a JetBlue flight number, as though a U.S. carrier operated the flights. 

In codeshare situations, foreign carriers agree that flights that carry the code of a U.S. airline will also comply with FAA airspace restrictions wherever they operate the flight globally. The Department of Transportation has long held that U.S. consumers have a reasonable expectation that flights containing codes belonging to U.S. airlines will be overseen and managed by U.S. regulators similarly to flights directly operated by U.S. airlines.

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Emirates contends that it was aware of the airspace restrictions and took steps to ensure it adequately notified crews. It also claimed that aircraft only violated airspace restrictions on instructions from local air traffic controllers who assigned an altitude lower than what the FAA would allow. The DOT responded that the amount of the fine and severity of the offense was due to the fact that the agency had previously charged Emirates with similar airspace violations in 2020, resulting in a $400,000 fine. 

The DOT contends that continuing to operate over the restricted airspace at any altitude means Emirates knew or should have known of the possibility that local air traffic controllers might regularly route the flight into the restricted airspace, and that even after the flights entered restricted airspace, Emirates took no steps to route subsequent flights differently. 

The Iraqi airspace in question has been restricted below 32,000 feet “because of the risks posed by weapons capable of targeting, or otherwise negatively affecting U.S. Civil Aviation” as well as “other hazards associated with fighting, extremist or militant activity, or heightened tensions.” The FAA also notes that both Iran and Turkey have conducted missile attacks on Northern Iraq with little or no advanced warnings, which could also pose safety risks to U.S. civil aviation.

It’s uncommon—but not unheard of—for airliners to be downed in conflict zones. It was more common during the Cold War. The Soviet Air Force downed two Korean airliners that inadvertently violated Russian airspace in 1978 and 1983. In the Persian Gulf Region, an Iran Air flight was shot down by the U.S. Navy in 1985 under circumstances that are still disputed. In 2014, a Malaysia Airlines jetliner was shot down by Russian-controlled forces over Eastern Ukraine. The FAA also prohibits U.S. civil aviation from airspace in other conflict areas, including Afghanistan, Russia, Iran, Belarus, and Ukraine.

Emirates ended codeshare flights with JetBlue in 2022. The airline now carries United Airlines codes on some flights in the region. 

Flights to the region operated directly by U.S. carriers are rare, but the handful that exist tend to avoid Iraqi airspace entirely. United’s flights to Dubai from Newark do not enter Iraqi airspace at any altitude; instead, they route over Egypt and Saudi Arabia. American Airlines flights from Philadelphia to Doha, Qatar, follow a similar routing.