US charter and cargo carriers question proposed Afghanistan flight restrictions

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A proposed rule that would limit civilian and commercial flights within Afghanistan airspace could pose financial hardship for the carriers now operating in the area, and ultimately hamper the war effort, say two sister cargo operators and a charter carrier that operate extensively in the region.

The US Federal Aviation Administration has proposed the rule to "prevent a potential hazard to persons and aircraft engaged in such flight operations" in the country's war zone. The FAA says it will consider requests for permission to carriers that provide detailed flight operation information and provide a safety risk analysis plan. Carriers would also have to be covered by an FAA-issued war risk insurance policy.

Both Atlas Air and Polar Air Cargo, subsidiaries of Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings (AAWW), operate in Afghanistan in support of US troops and the effort to rebuild infrastructure in the country.

"The potential economic impact in terms of lost jobs and revenue should not be underestimated," says Thomas Kane, AAWW vice-president defence and government programmes, in testimony forwarded to the FAA. "Restricting US-registered carriers from performing these vital logistical and support missions will impact our war fighters and potentially divert US taxpayer dollars to other national carriers in violation of the Fly America Act."

Kalitta Air, which also flies charter and cargo operations into Afghanistan, says it is trying to gauge the impact of the proposed rule. The carrier, in testimony submitted to the FAA, says it thinks that the agency did not understand the extent or the scope of commercial flights in the airspace or the impact the new rule would have on these operators.

Between 1 July 2009 and 30 June, Kalitta Air operated 302 commercial charter flights into Afghanistan, at average per-flight revenue of around $138,000. Its total revenue for these operations was $41.6 million. In addition, the carrier flew 66 missions under direct contract to the Air Mobility Command, for a total of 368 flights into Afghanistan.

The carrier suggests that the FAA should streamline the exemption process, which would be costly in both time and resources and that operations into US-controlled bases in Afghanistan be exempted from applying for special permission.

"It is our hope that this comment and regulatory impact analysis process will illuminate the true nature of what is going on, and the serious problems that will ensue if the rule is adopted as initially proposed," says Kalitta.

A final ruling has not been issued by the FAA.