UIA plane crash: Western sanctions limit Iranian flight options

Nachikethan Srinivasan ’21

It has been three weeks since a Boeing 737-800 suddenly crashed after departing Tehran en route to Kiev, Ukraine, on January 8. The government of Iran has admitted that the flight was shot down by “accident,” with the head of the Revolutionary Guard’s aerospace division saying his unit accepts “full responsibility.” 

     As of now, Iran claims that of the 167 passengers and nine crew members on board, 147 of them Iranian nationals, though this number is disputed as some travelers may have held dual nationality. Upon closer inspection of passengers’ travel records, 138 of the passengers had Canada listed as their final destination. That accounts for almost 82% of all passengers who were on board. This begs the question: why was such an unknown route out of one of the world’s most turbulent countries for air transport carrying so many passengers that weren’t even planning to stay?

     Ukraine International Airlines (UIA), the involved carrier, is Ukraine’s largest airline. UIA provides domestic and international transit across wider Europe, the Middle East, North America, and Asia from its hubs in Kyiv, Lviv, and Odessa. Despite not being a particularly popular or busy transit point, UIA provides affordable travel options in comparison to larger European carriers.

Ukrainian plane wreckage across an Iranian soccer field – photo by Hossein Mersadi via Wikimedia Commons

     One of these destinations is Toronto, which the 138 passengers listed as their final destination. Around 210,000 Iranians reside in Canada, mainly in the provinces of Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia. This makes Canada home to one of the largest segments of the Iranian diaspora, with many in wealthy and well-educated communities.

     With such a remunerative market to attract, combined with the sheer number of Canada-bound victims, it can easily be assumed that there is a large demand for air travel between cities in Canada and Iran, yet there are no direct routes in between the two nations. How could this be?

     To put it simply: international sanctions. Economic and political sanctions have had long-lasting effects on the ease of travel to Iran, forcing travelers to take more lengthy and costly travel routes.

     Prior to the crash, customers had limited affordable travel options. Besides a smattering of big-name European and Asian carriers like Lufthansa, Emirates, and Austrian Airlines, and international services operated by Iran and Mahan Air, there were not any other large carriers with decent connecting networks and direct flights to Iran.

Many airlines continue to avoid Iranian airspace and have placed tighter restrictions on flights over Iranian air space due to ongoing war efforts with the US in Iraq.

     This situation worsened for Iranian travelers after British Airways, Air France, and Alitalia suspended services to Iran following US sanctions in 2018. This not only gave them narrow options, but also caused rising ticket prices among larger carriers. These price increases gave options like transiting through Kiev with UIA more viability, especially amongst younger customers like the returning students that died aboard Flight 752.

     Sanctions like these have had far-reaching effects on travel in Iran, from availability to affordability to flight safety. Many airlines continue to avoid Iranian airspace and have placed tighter restrictions on flights over Iranian air space due to ongoing war efforts with the US in Iraq. And with the crash of Flight 752 and UIA’s suspension of flights, Iranians must endure tighter restrictions on an already long-restricted right of mobility.