Since the start of the year, tensions between Somalia and Somaliland (an independent but internationally unrecognized state) have been high. While the two territories have been going at it for years, tensions have increased since the signing of an MoU between Ethiopia and Somaliland on January 1.
The MoU would see landlocked Ethiopia gain access to the Red Sea through the Port of Berbera in exchange for recognizing Somaliland as an independent country and granting it a stake in Ethiopian Airlines. Seeing this as an attack on its sovereignty, Somalia immediately rejected the arrangement, causing further tensions between the Horn of Africa countries. This was followed by an airspace dispute, which has resulted in several incidents and raised concerns about airline safety in the region.
Who controls the airspace over Somalia?
The unstable political situation in Somalia seriously impacted the country’s aviation sector for many years. The previous national carrier, Somali Airlines, also suffered due to a civil war in the early 90s. However, following improvements in certain areas, the airspace over Somalia was reclassified to “Class A” last year. This saw the return of air traffic control services in the country after three decades. Also highlighting how far the air transport sector has come, Somalia recently opened its first Maintenance, Repair, and Overhaul (MRO) center in over 30 years.
The airspace over Somalia and the surrounding ocean is managed by the Somali Civil Aviation Authority (SCAA) from the Mogadishu Area Control Center. “This airspace, known as the Mogadishu Flight Information Region (FIR) and its controlling authority are defined under the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Air Navigation Plan for the Africa and Indian Ocean (AFI) Region, which recognizes Somalia as the controlling State, by extension the Somali Civil Aviation Authority,” explained a spokesperson from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) to Simple Flying.
On the other hand, Somaliland has control over its airports but not the upper airspace. Egal International Airport (HGA) is the state’s main airport, serving the capital of Hargeisa. Following the signing of the Ethiopia-Somaliland MoU, Somali authorities began restricting flight activity in Somaliland to assert its authority over its airspace.
Consequences of the ongoing dispute
On January 17, the SCAA blocked an Ethiopian Airlines Dash 8 carrying Ethiopian delegates from entering the airspace, saying it had no permission to enter the country. The SCAA also reportedly blocked an air ambulance that was carrying a Somaliland citizen who “needed urgent help.” However, the Somali authorities denied the last claim.
In return, Somaliland claimed independence over its territory and surrounding areas, issuing an international aviation advisory and a statement on its X (formerly Twitter) page. It is attempting to control air traffic in the region from Hargeisa. With both states claiming the right to control traffic, there have been multiple reports of airlines receiving conflicting instructions while overflying the area.
Crews receiving instructions to climb and descend
Over the past month, airlines flying over Somalia have reported receiving conflicting instructions from different air traffic controllers. Last week, an Ethiopian Airlines (ET) Airbus A350 and a Qatar Airways (QR) Boeing 787 narrowly avoided a collision as TCAS intervened. The Qatar Airways crew had been wrongly instructed by ATC in Mogadishu to climb from 38,000 ft to 40,000 ft while the ET aircraft was flying at 38,000 ft, about 180 NM from Hargeisa. Some experts suggest this might have been a mistake on the ATC’s part.
OPSGROUP notes that it received at least ten reports of aircraft flying over Somalia “being contacted by a ‘fake controller’ on the same frequency, issuing conflicting instructions.”The Horn Observer also reported that on February 14, a Qatar Airways A320 crew received conflicting instructions from air traffic controllers on a flight from Doha to Mogadishu via Djibouti.
An El Al 787 crew flying from Phuket to Tel Aviv on February 18 reported receiving communication disturbances while overflying Somalia. It is believed that a hostile group attempted to hijack the flight radio. El Al explained that “the disturbances are not aimed at El Al planes and that this is not a security incident.” It is not entirely clear if this was also a result of the disputing controllers in Mogadishu and Hargeisa.
Somali authorities issued a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) warning of unlawful VHF interference in the area over Somaliland (150NM radius of Hargeisa). It indicated that flights in the area should not expect altitude adjustments unless directed by authorities in Mogadishu. This was followed by a statement on February 19, accusing Somaliland of disrupting “the lines used by airplanes over parts of the airspace of the northern regions of Somalia.” It added that “if these offensive measures continue,” the Somali government would have to “take strong measures to ensure the security and safety of the Somali Civil Aviation.”
The mysterious death of an air traffic controller
One of the most significant developments in this dispute was the death of Abdinasir Muse Abdirahman, a Somaliland-born air traffic controller working with the Somali Civil Aviation Authority. He was found dead in his apartment in Mogadishu on February 18, and his body showed signs of strangulation and severe torture. Six suspects were immediately detained by Somali police officers.
While there are ongoing investigations in both states, the Somaliland Civil Aviation and Airports Authority (SCAAA), in a statement from February 20, accused Somalia and its Civil Aviation Authority of a “conspiracy to kill AHN Abdinasir Muse Dahale, and the illegal detention of his friends to cover up the involvement of the government agencies.”
The fate of operations over Somali airspace
The area over East Africa is one of the busiest on the continent. The region is also home to some of Africa’s most prominent airlines, including Ethiopian Airlines and Kenya Airways. Some of the busiest airways, connecting the African subcontinent south of Ethiopia with destinations in the Middle East and Indian subcontinent, pass through Somali airspace. The same applies to air links between Western Europe and the Indian subcontinent and Indian Ocean islands.
As the IATA spokesperson said, no airline would fly in “unsafe airspace.” The risks of flying over Somalia have been assessed by the Air Navigation Service Provider and the operators, who have implemented mitigation measures. Yesterday, Ethiopian Airlines announced that it would change some of its routes to avoid Somali airspace. The carrier will now fly over Djibouti, affecting some flights to Asia and the Middle East. However, it has maintained its schedules to Mogadishu and Hargeisa.
For airlines still flying over the country, crews have been advised to be wary of the environment and follow instructions in the NOTAM issued by Mogadishu authorities advising them to contact the Mogadishu Area Control Center through additional methods like controller pilot data link communications (CPDLC) or satellite communication (SATCOM), particularly in the area within a 150 NM radius of Hargeisa.
Source: Simple Flying.