Pakistan has restricted its airspace indefinitely over fears India will launch another attack, forcing international airlines to take costly and time-consuming detours.
“This is a matter of national security. There can be no compromise,” a senior Pakistan government official told the Financial Times. “I realise this is a problem [for airlines] but Pakistan’s security must come first.”
Another senior government official said an air strike by the Indian military in northern Pakistan last month had “definitely” prompted the move to close the airspace. A day after the Indian strike, Pakistan’s air force fired at two Indian fighters.
“We are still concerned that the Indians may go for another adventure as Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi tries to get votes to win the election,” the official said, referring to India’s national poll, to be held over seven weeks from April 11. “Our reading is that the Indians are still thinking of attacking Pakistan in the name of targeting terrorist locations.”
Imran Khan, Pakistan’s prime minister, has also voiced fears of an imminent attack. On Friday he told a gathering near Peshawar that “there is a need for Pakistanis to remain vigilant”.
He added: “We are repeatedly asking India to have bilateral trade and resolve the issue of Kashmir through talks but, unfortunately, a political party in India wants to win the election by spreading hatred.”
The airspace closure is affecting about 800 commercial and cargo flights a day, said Mark Martin, founder of aviation company Martin Consulting, who estimated that the shutdown has already cost airlines and airports more than $1bn.
“If you picked up your ticket six months ago and now your flight time has gone up by 90 minutes, someone has to pay for that extra fuel and airlines have to take the financial hit,” said Mr Martin, who is based in the Indian city of Gurgaon. “It’s definitely a challenge.”
India carried out an air strike on February 26 on a suspected terrorist training camp in Pakistan in response to a suicide bombing earlier last month that killed 40 Indian paramilitary troops in Kashmir. The air strike marked the end of New Delhi’s longtime policy of strategic restraint towards Islamabad.
Analysts said the air strike had bolstered Mr Modi’s re-election campaign by putting national security back on the agenda and burnishing his strongman image.
Since India’s attack, Pakistan has restricted a portion of its airspace near the eastern border with India, disrupting the operations of international airlines flying to Europe and Asia. The closure has forced Pakistan’s domestic carriers to fly a longer western route along Iran, adding to the flying time between the capital Islamabad and the southern port city of Karachi.
“There has been a severe impact, most of the flights have to take a longer detour. It’s created scheduling and networking issues, flights are getting delayed, some are getting cancelled,” said Kapil Kaul, South Asia chief for the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation.
After India launched its air strike, there were fears that the conflict could intensify. Mr Khan’s decision to release a captured Indian pilot appeared to defuse tensions but pressure remains high with New Delhi insisting that Islamabad needs to do more to crack down on militants allegedly operating freely on its soil.