High Flying Hopes of Regional Connectivity
Oct 25, 2021
Azerbaijan has carried out its first flight in seven years across Armenian airspace. This flight was conducted by Azerbaijan Airlines (AZAL) on October 6 and it is the first plane registered in Azerbaijan to cross over Armenia’s airspace since 2014. This could signal a small but important shift in relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the aftermath of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. The new flight route might be a consequence of Azerbaijan’s current problem utilizing Iranian’s airspace for some airliner flights. The other motivating factor in this new policy towards Armenia is a result of Iran choosing to block Azerbaijani planes from utilizing its airspace to access the Nakhchivan exclave, a land-locked Azerbaijani territory bordered by Armenia to the north and east, and Iran to the west. Additionally, Azerbaijan’s use of Armenian airspace to reach Nakhchivan will shorten the flight time and decrease fuel consumption.
The change of flight paths to and from Nakhchivan has occurred in the context of recent border escalations between Azerbaijan and Iran. Military drills and high tensions caused by customs disputes between Azerbaijan and Iran have characterized the relationship on the border of the two countries. The change in airspace policy by Iran towards Azerbaijan restricts military flights specifically, with civilian transport routes apparently unaffected. Technically, Azerbaijan was never prohibited from utilizing Armenian airspace for civilian flights, however to avoid flying through contested air space, until recently Azerbaijan redirected flights through northern Iran. Armenia has a few flights to Central Asia, and currently none cross over Azerbaijani airspace. This means that the decision for Azerbaijan to break the status quo and fly in this airspace without Armenian retaliation signals the potential for future cooperation and engagement on other outstanding issues.
Because of the fraught and, unfortunately, often violent relationship between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the countries have no diplomatic relations. However, in recent weeks, Azerbaijan has demonstrated an intent to reconcile with Armenia, out of necessity. While Iranian restrictions on Azerbaijani use of its airspace are inconvenient and disruptive to established transport networks, the restrictions might have resulted in Azerbaijan considering reestablishing partial relations with Armenia. Baku has expressed a desire to open regional transport lanes, further supporting the possibility of rapprochement.
Since this is a new development, it remains to be seen how this will impact economics and security between Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Iran. Should there be success in reopening unrestricted air travel between Armenia and Azerbaijan, there is significant potential for both states to benefit. Armenia could potentially be able to generate government revenue from taxes on Azerbaijani flights. Azerbaijan would directly benefit from more direct routes to its exclave, conserving jet fuel, and avoiding Iranian airspace. In the current climate of increased military activity in the Caspian, this new transportation route could be a welcomed way to prevent further escalation. However, there remains much work to be done surrounding the disputes concerning overland transport and trucking routes between Baku, Yerevan, and Tehran due to the strategic and economic importance of the routes.