Middle East Airlines & Syrian Airspace

Filed Under: Other Airlines

I’m currently planning my first ever trip to Beirut, and am in the process of booking flights. I’m curious what you guys make of this situation.

My plan is to fly Middle East Airlines to Lebanon, both because they offer the most flights there, and also because they’re a SkyTeam airline that I haven’t yet reviewed. But every time I write about MEA, something about the airline is brought up.

Specifically, Middle East Airlines uses Syrian airspace for their flights. A vast majority of airlines avoid this airspace nowadays, due to the risk of air strikes. For example, looking at a flight from Beirut to Dubai, here’s the route Middle East Airlines takes (this is per Flightradar24):

And here’s the route Emirates takes:

Virtually every international government organization issuing warnings regarding the danger of using Syrian airspace, and almost all airlines avoid that airspace. As far as I know, the exceptions are Syrian Air, Iraqi Airways, and Middle East Airlines. But actually, now that I’m looking at a flight map, it looks like there’s a Qatar Airways flight over the North of Syria right now, which is interesting.

Would this cause me to avoid MEA? Probably not. I’ve written before about how I don’t put much thought into airline safety, though I will say that I think I generally take bigger issue with what seems like a reckless decision against all safety advisories, rather than some general minor differences in safety otherwise.

Still, I’m taking family on this trip, and I don’t want them to feel uncomfortable if they start Googling about the airline. I was originally going to fly MEA from Paris to Beirut to Dubai, but now I think I’ll fly MEA from Paris to Beirut (where there’s limited “exposure” to that airspace), and then Emirates from Beirut to Dubai, just to cover my bases in case they decide to Google. 😉

I do find MEA’s stance on this interesting, though. Do they believe there’s not a serious risk of an air strike, even when other airlines do? Have they done a cost-benefit analysis and decided the risk is too low, and they’re better off saving the time and fuel?

I’m curious what you guys make of this — would you be willing to fly MEA? If not, is it because you perceive there’s an actual risk, or on principle, because they’re not adhering to basic international safety standards in this regard?

Comments
  1. Hey Lucky,

    The chances are extremely slim that something will happen. Regardless, it is technically still a war zone and I’m sure the passengers who were on the Malaysian Airlines flight over the Ukraine were mostly unaware, rather than educated on routings as well as the risks.
    You have the opportunity to avoid the air space with your one and only life.
    I know what I would do. It’s a no-brainer.

  2. Hi Lucky,

    I’ve flown this exact route this summer, and felt completely safe! In Lebanon there is a very specific attitude towards Syria, certainly with the amount of Syrian refugees they welcome.

    If you have the chance to stopover, do it! You will be positively surprised by the extravaganza Beirut has to offer.

  3. When I was an air traffic liaison in Iraq I flew them a few times heading in and out of country and they were fine. I’d never fly Iraqi Air, but that’s another story.

  4. It’s only in April this year that most airlines modified their routings avoding syrian airspace. In April there was a chemical attack in an area called Douma after which Trump announced that there would be bombings in retaliation. I can’t remember if it came to that.

    Only then were airlines advised to avoid syrian airspace. AF, MEA among others re-routed flights at that time. I suspect that after a while, some airlines resumed their usual flightpaths.

    Given that before then airlines had been using the syrian airspace – and the war in Syria has been going on for many years now, i don’t see MEA as risking safety here. I personally wouldn’t have qualms flying over that airspace. I would feel a knot in my stomach flying over where the Malaysian plane was shot down.

  5. Airlines don’t avoid the airspace, they are completely prohibited from doing so. Many CAAs have banned their airlines from flying in Syrian airspace. I know for sure that UAE and US carriers are banned.

  6. Lucky, MEA uses a carefully controlled corridor through Syrian airspace, they don’t fly over just any part of the country. This path has been deemed as safe. If/when things flare up, they fly over Egypt and Saudi, like they did back in April. Look at ME310/BEYAMM, it doesn’t fly straight across Syria to Amman, it uses the same path as to/from DXB and the like.
    I’ve flown MEA over Syrian airspace countless times, and they’ve been doing so since the beginning of the war. No warning signs and nothing has happened.

  7. Also, no reason whatsoever to avoid the airline on other routes – a CDG-BEY doesn’t get anywhere near Syria, it doesn’t even fly over Lebanon!

  8. I wouldn’t want to experience an issue over Iraq either. You don’t have to worry so much about being shot out of the sky, but if you ended up on the ground it may not be a great day….and I have flown into Iraq more than 20 times.

  9. I wanna tap into what people here have said thus far: enjoy Beirut. It’s a blast of a place if you meet locals and get to sense their stance on life and e energy (enjoy life like there’s gonna be no tomorrow). Also, the country has a lot to offer beyond the capital.
    And yes, absolutely fly MEA. They are an airline with decent setvice and very kind FA’s. They do a good job in representing their country. Your plane won’t get shot.

  10. The UAE just announced the reopening of their embassy in Syria, which means Emirates, and FlyDubai will start flying to Damascus shortly.

  11. @Lucky – To add on to what “C” says, the G202/A21 corridor with transition at MODIK to Baghdad FIR or ZELAF/SOKAN to Amman FIR is designated as a safe passage airway for civilian flights in Damascus FIR. Overflight is a non-issue for the most part from a safety perspective.

    The reason most airlines are avoiding it is because it could be a violation of EU/US sanctions to pay the navigation fees to a sanctioned entity (as most Syrian government agencies are at this point).

  12. @Lucky – I flew MEA in August from IST to BEY and then from BEY to LCA. Bothe of these routes avoid syrian airspace.

  13. Lucky,

    I think you are correct in your choice in choosing to fly BEY-DXB on Emirates. Even if the MEA route is safe enough, it will give you the comfort of mind not going over Syria. Additionally, over the last week or so things have gotten less predictable in Syria. With the US pulling out of Northern Syria, it seems highly likely that Turkey will start a new campaign there and in South Syria, Israel seems more determined to attack military targets there which according to the Russians has already endangered commercial flights.

  14. We’re funny creatures aren’t we? Our “risk analysis” on one matter makes us comically overcautious, while we do absurd things, like buying lottery tickets. It’s not really in the numbers, it’s in our mental laziness. We like shorthand and quick information. “Bomb in Israel”. Does an incident in Haifa mean I shouldn’t go to Tel Aviv? “Plane hijacked”. Should I avoid all airlines? “Syrian airspace”. Which part? Where, actually, on the map, is the danger? Easier to make the wrong decision and defend it with “better safe than sorry”.

    SARS taught me that people don’t inform themselves. I live in Toronto where the only Canadian SARS cases were. A couple dozen. Yet, thousands of people cancelled trips to Vancouver and Prince Edward Island (Japanese are crazy about Anne of Green Gables) for years. Hotels and Inns were wiped out. “Canada has SARS. Better safe than sorry.” What nonsense. Toronto had SARS, not Canada. The same applies here. Some Syrian airspace is less safe than other. MEA has sweated the details, flying their passengers safely.

    If I were Ben, I’d fly MEA cuz, well, Ben hasn’t flown MEA yet. If he doesn’t, he’ll have this itch…

    I’d fly MEA cuz let’s face it, the likelihood of anything bad happening is near zero. How many flights has MEA flown over the Syrian territory? How many passengers? How many have died, or even had a hangnail? None. That’s the number you need for “statistical likelihood”.

    The old and wise, on their deathbeds, say “the only things I regret are the things I didn’t do”.

  15. if you follow the headlines times are tense with Israel being that Hezbollah was caught red handed digging underground terrorist tunnels (OH SORRY PEACEFUL TUNNELS(b/c thats normal to do)) into israel, you never know if there is a war coming

  16. I am originally from Lebanon, you should go to Lebanon, you will have a blast and will enjoy great food. My sister is an English teacher at an american school is Lebanon. She can show you around. Let me know if you are interested.

    Wassim

  17. @CAUTION You sincerely think you’ve rebutted my point. You’ve validated my point and provided a shining example.

    Your point: somewhere in a different country, some really bad people are probably soon gonna do something bad with tunnels. People you label similarly have been caught “red handed” doing bad stuff with tunnels in the past to innocent, blameless people, in a different country from Lucky’s proposed origin, destination, or route, not involving aviation.

    And we should know this, but we haven’t been “following the headlines”.

  18. Beirut is my favorite destination in the Middle East. Hope you enjoy this gorgeous and trendy city. From the perspective of a travel and war journalist, I don’t give the minuscule risk a second thought.

  19. Or try flying from one of the three MEA’s West African destinations: Lagos, Abidjan, or Accra. These routes are not mentioned by anyone yet and one-way prices have been reasonable. You can fly into ACC and LOS nonstop from JFK on Delta, a one-stop connection to ABJ on Arik Air that you once mentioned, or even connect in MAD and SSG on Equatorial Guinea’s CEIBA airlines, an airline that few people know, and is banned to fly into EU (they wet-leased a 777-200 from Portugal’s White Airways to fly the MAD-SSG route, which makes it very interesting).

  20. Like C and Sean said, while they do fly over Syrian airspace, they take a very specific route which I am sure they have deemed safe. Take a look for instance at a flight between AMM and BEY…they take a very round about way through Syria to get to Beirut. The more direct route would likely take them through Northern Israel and the Golan Heights area of Syria which they are clearly trying to avoid. I’ve flown that route and never questioned my safety…it is a very short period of time you are in that airspace in any instance and I thought the MEA experience was pleasant enough for such a short flight.

    Agree with others though – I know it is not necessarily your style, but a Beirut stopover is well worth it!

  21. I am a longtime reader who has been living for Beirut for two years now. I have only flown MEA once. It was to London, so there was no risk of crossing Syrian airspace. When I was first assigned to Beirut, my original routing in J was IAH-DOH-BEY with the DOH-BEY leg as a codeshare operated by MEA. I didn’t receive my visa in time to fly that original itinerary, so I asked ravel to rebook me on a later DOH-BEY flight operated by QR to avoid the Syrian airspace. It also gave me the chance to visit the Al Safwa First Class Lounge for a few hours. So yes, I have actively avoided flying MEA in the past. SeanM’s info is really interesting though.

    You didn’t mention in the map of the Emirates flight is that planes flying into/out of Beirut are not allowed to enter Israeli airspace. To avoid both Israeli and Syrian airspace, you will always see this detour into the Mediterranean and then across the Sinai peninsula for flights to Jordan and the Gulf. Just compare the flight time and path of BEY-AMM for MEA versus Royal Jordanian (see the article posted to Sam below). QR flights used to also have the same general flightpath until they couldn’t enter Saudi airspace anymore.

    I often tell people that while Lebanon is not an island, it kind of is when you look at these flightpaths that reflect the geopolitics of the region. And if I were ever to be evacuated (inshallah this won’t happen), the only option these days is by boat.

    Anyway, most people enjoy Beirut and Lebanon. As a tip, sit on the lefthand side when flying into BEY for a view of the skyline and the Raouche Rocks. Let me know if you want some tips or would want to meet.

    @Sam- All airlines except for MEA and other airlines flying to Iraq have been avoiding Syrian airspace for years, not just since April. See this NYTimes article from 2014: https://nyti.ms/1zvF2MU.

  22. I fly DMM to BEY on MEA often and have never felt uncomfortable. One time I changed routes and flew BAH to BEY on Gulf Air and the gentleman sitting next to me complained the entire flight about Gulf Air’s routing (not over Syria), adding to the flight time.

    Hope you enjoy MEA. Their planes are dated, but it’s always a special experience being onboard with them.

    Where are you planning on staying in Beirut?

    Let us know if you need any recommendations on your Beirut layover.

    -Alex

  23. The Syrian army is firing anti aircraft missiles all over the place every time the IDF bombs there. They just recently took down a “friendly” Russian military plane, killing everyone on board. Then again, flying to Lebanon on any airline will probably be the safest aspect of any visit there.

  24. So instead you’ll fly EK over the Sinai peninsula? Is that really safe?

    When the russian airliner was brought down by a bomb, I remember experts talking that this area is not really under the control of Egypt and their military (they only control the road connecting Cairo and the red sea resorts, nothing more). The rest of the vast area is controlled by islamists and Egypt does not know what they are up to.

  25. MEA are a great Airline and safe. Old school service touches really enjoyable. I would say the A330 from CDG and one of the A320 flights onward to DXB would be a great review/comparison which would be appreciated I’m sure.
    Beirut is fantastic, as others have said go beyond Beirut for an incredibly diverse and wonderful country and people. If you have even a night, get up to Byblos for an evening. So beautiful and full of history and great places to eat or relax by the sea. St.Anthonys Monestary in the Kadisha Valley is so special and the Cedars and villages en route are fun too!

  26. For those who wish to believe what CNN, Fox News, BBC spout out then exactly what is going down in Syria is the truth.

    The actual reality from many is much much different, MEA as a local carrier knows this and just gets on with it over Syria.

    I would fly across Syrian airspace, BUT understand those, the many who wish not to.

    I think taking MEA from CDG is a better choice, although one could point to the bombing of CDG-CAI not that long ago! Perhaps MEA from LHR is a better more comfortable option?

    Chat with a Middle Eastern friend and you will hear an entirely different reality on Syria.

  27. Just ask yourself how many airliners have been brought down over Syria since the beginning of the war and then make an informed decision. By the way tourism is actually beginning to return to Syria and many of the hotels in Damascus are full.

  28. “and felt completely safe”

    It is very debatable how to define “safe” in the first place (without using a word “feeling”)

    “Feeling safe” is yet another level of abstraction. It has very little to do with your statistical chances of getting into trouble, it is 99% related to your prescription of the situation, which for most people is formed by the news, which in turn are thriving on providing information about some extraordinary events (that’s in the best case scenario, when they are not making up facts altogether)
    35000 people dying in car crashes in US alone is not a news. 150 people dying in air accident is a news (because it doesn’t happen that often)
    Actually 10 people dying in train crash is even bigger news, because this is extremely rare event.

    Talk about “feelings” …

  29. I’ve flown dubai to beirut several times with MEA and flydubai. MEA is much better but obviously Emirates provides a much better expirence. The saftey risk is very minimal and the fact that you’ll be in Beirut is the bigger factor if you’re concerned about safety (still minimal).

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