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Emirates, the Dubai-based airline, has agreed to pay a $1.8 million settlement for operating JetBlue codeshare flights through Iraqi airspace at unauthorised flight levels, as mandated by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). This fine follows the airline’s breach of FAA regulations and U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) restrictions.

The DOT granted Emirates approval to operate codeshare flights with JetBlue, contingent on compliance with FAA restrictions, mirroring those for U.S.-based airlines. However, between December 2021 and August 2022, Emirates conducted 122 flights through Iraqi airspace below the FAA’s minimum altitude requirement of FL320. These flights, identified by JetBlue’s B6 designator, were flagged for non-compliance.


The DOT stated that by operating these flights below the specified altitude, Emirates violated the terms of its operational authority. This recent infraction echoes a previous breach in September 2020, where Emirates was fined $400,000 for flying through Iranian airspace, which was closed to U.S. operators at the time. That earlier ruling also included a directive for Emirates to cease such violations.


In response to the June 2024 ruling, Emirates explained that it intended to operate the flights at or above FL320 but was unable to secure the necessary air traffic control (ATC) clearance. The airline argued that adhering to the planned altitude would have compromised the safety of other aircraft in the Baghdad Flight Information Region (ORBB FIR).


“While these flights were operating, ATC did not give clearance to ascend to FL320, or had categorically instructed these flights to operate below FL320,” said an Emirates spokesperson. “Our pilots duly followed ATC instructions, a decision which is fully aligned with international aviation regulations.”


Emirates further defended its actions by noting that the flight plans were designed for altitudes at or above FL320, and specific information about the ORBB FIR was included in the crew briefings. The airline asserted that flights ascended to the required altitude as soon as clearance was granted, and it invoked an emergency situation exemption due to safety concerns.


Nevertheless, the DOT argued that Emirates “should have known” after the initial instances that local ATC might instruct operations below FL320 and should have taken measures to prevent further violations. The DOT emphasized that the fine was imposed for continuing to operate below the mandated altitude, not for following ATC instructions during flight.


Following a review of the evidence, the DOT concluded that enforcement action was necessary due to the repeated nature of the violations. Consequently, Emirates has agreed to the $1.8 million settlement, with $1.5 million payable within 60 days and the remaining $300,000 due within one year.


This incident is not isolated; in January 2023, the DOT fined UK carrier Virgin Atlantic $1.05 million for operating Delta Air Lines codeshare flights over Iraq in violation of a U.S. ban. Virgin Atlantic attributed the overflight violations to differing national regulations, with other authorities allowing high-level overflights of Iraqi airspace.


Since October 16, 2020, the U.S. has maintained a NOTAM prohibiting civil aviation operations below FL320 in the ORBB FIR, a restriction extended until October 26, 2024.

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