The geopolitical tension in West Africa following a coup in Niger two weeks ago elevated again on Sunday as the military junta running the country closed its airspace to all air traffic, creating a logistical conundrum for commercial airlines.
The move came after nearby nations began to publicly weigh the possibility of military intervention to restore democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum to power after soldiers detained him on July 26 and installed Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, the former chief of the presidential guard, as head of state.
According to the Associated Press, on Sunday a spokesman for the coup leaders, Col. Maj. Amadou Abdramane, noted “the threat of intervention being prepared in a neighboring country,” and said any attempt to fly over the country will be met with “an energetic and immediate response.”
That declaration affected several aircraft in flight at the time of the announcement, including a pair of British Airways A380s logging cross-continental flights from London to Johannesburg, South Africa, and vice versa.
As detailed by One Mile at a Time, the solution wasn’t so simple as diverting around Niger, given the proximity of Libya, a nation most airlines avoid because of safety concerns.
Add in fuel consumption, flight crew time restrictions and other factors, and the two flights each had to turn back to their respective origin points, creating hours-long “flights to nowhere.”
Going forward, the airspace restriction will challenge airlines and disrupt routes flying to or over the west-central African region that also includes Nigeria, Mali, Burkina Faso and Ghana.
International routes have already been significantly disrupted due to Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Russia has banned aircraft registered in more three dozen countries—including the U.S., the U.K., Japan, Australia and the EU—from its airspace, and Russian aircraft are prohibited from flying over more than 40 nations worldwide.
Ukraine has suspended all civilian flights in its airspace, citing a high risk to safety due to the conflict.
In 2014, passenger plane Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was struck by a missile over Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board, as pro-Russian separatists in the Donbass region fought Ukrainian forces.