The Politics of Airspace

The Politics of Airspace

On the evening of February 26, 2019, I boarded a direct flight from Newark, New Jersey, to New Delhi, India. I was flying to Delhi to conduct research for my current book project. I had been singularly focused on my research goals and had not paid much attention to the news in the days preceding my flight. Had I found the time to take a brief break, I would have been better prepared for what happened on board that flight. Sometime in the middle of the night, as I attempted to sleep, our pilot announced that the plane was turning around. We were no longer flying to Delhi—Pakistan had closed its commercial airspace—my flight was now diverted to London, and all the passengers on board would need to be rebooked. 

Pakistan’s decision to close its airspace on February 27, 2019, came in response to an airstrike launched the day prior by the Indian government in retaliation for a terrorist attack[1]. On February 14, 2019, a suicide-bomber killed forty Indian paramilitary police in the town of Pulwama in the Indian-administered part of Kashmir, the northernmost region of the Indian subcontinent[2]. India launched an airstrike on an alleged terrorist camp forty miles into the Pakistani-administered part of Kashmir[3]. India and Pakistan have engaged in a long-standing territorial conflict over control of Kashmir since the partition of India in 1947, and this recent clash is one of many that have plagued the region over the past seventy years. Jaish-e-Muhammad or JeM, a militant group that the United Nations classifies as a terrorist organization, claimed responsibility for the suicide-bombing[4]. The organization’s objective is to use violence to forcibly remove the Indian presence from Kashmir[5]. To justify the airstrike the Indian government claimed that Pakistan was complicit in the attack, and later represented the airstrike as successful in that it killed large numbers of terrorists (although this claim has been heavily disputed)[6]. Tensions further escalated between the two nuclear-powered South Asian neighbors when Pakistan shot down one of India’s warplanes on February 27, 2019 and captured the pilot; numerous Indian and Pakistani social media accounts were populated with cries of retaliation for the events of the week[7]. In response to Pakistan’s airspace closure, the Indian Air Force (IAF) shut down its airspace for flights into and from Pakistan. On March 1, 2019 Pakistan sent the captured pilot back to India in an effort to deescalate the tensions[8]. 

Amidst this violent conflict were commercial and cargo travel disruptions. I did eventually make it to India, albeit two days later than I had expected. Similarly, my direct flight back to Newark in March now involved a stop in Frankfurt to allow for a crew change, since our flying time had significantly lengthened without the option to fly through Pakistan. My experience was one of inconvenience—an extreme example of travel frustration that while bothersome to endure was over and done with at the completion of my trip. Tensions over Kashmir, however, tragically remain very much in place. And yet reflecting on this experience of being a part, however small, of an international conflict waged in the sky gave me pause about the politics of airspace, and how that politics troubles our sense of geography and gives surprising weight to the persistence of the nation-state.

Airspace for the everyday airline passenger is thus the space of transit, and only when it fails on its transportation promise do we attend to the nuance of its mapping.

Of course, it should come as no surprise that a politics of airspace exists. Henri Lefebvre’s famous observation—“there is a politics of space because space is political [il y a politiquede l'espace, parce que l'espace est politique]”— is particularly applicable when discussing airspace and the diverse ways in which it gets politicized[9]. Lefebvre, critiquing mid-twentieth-century urban planning policies in France and Europe at large, represented the politics of space as a series of politically motivated spatial strategies enacted in the “midst of contradictions.”[10] In an era of neoliberalism, as Neil Brenner and Stuart Elden have argued, Lefebvre’s ideas about the politics of space continue to provide key insights. Spatial organization, they claim, remains strategically significant “to capital, states, and social forces at all scales that such concerted political strategies are being mobilized to reshape them.”[11] In light of the recent conflict between India and Pakistan this mobilization clearly extends to the sky. 

Defined simply, airspace refers to atmosphere, or the space that lies above the land and water. However, its mapping gets complicated when the definition of airspace is entangled with a nation-state’s territorial claims. U.S. airspace, for example, must adhere to rules set by the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the Department of Defense (DOD). In addition to various state rules, the representation and use of airspace itself is by no means homogenous; in the U.S., airspace is divided and classified into different categories (controlled and uncontrolled) and subcategories or classes, which map the vertical space just above the ground to 18,000 feet and sometimes higher. These maps are difficult to read for those not trained in aeronautical science, but such a complicated classification is designed with safety in mind; government agencies strive to avoid plane collisions by creating a detailed vertical map and controlling the zones in which certain planes and airports are allowed to fly in and operate from, respectively. Consensus regarding where the vertical limits of a nation-state’s sovereignty ends continues to be a subject of international debate[12]. Meanwhile, the horizontal boundaries of a nation’s airspace is in theory supposed to correspond to the maritime definition of territorial waters, or 12 nautical miles (22.2 km) from a given nation-state's baseline. However, the U.S. claims much of the Pacific Ocean in terms of air traffic control. Airspace, it would seem, can be difficult to fix firmly with respect to a nation-state’s physical territory, but as a spatial form is clearly understood within a logic that validates the basic idea of the nation-state. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge provides a general rationale for the variety inherent in its classificatory scheme that emphasizes this attention to the nation-state: “The categories and types of airspace are dictated by the complexity or density of aircraft movements, nature of the operations conducted within the airspace, the level of safety required, and national and public interest.”[13] 

What is the national or public interest as it corresponds to airspace? For most everyday airline passengers our experience with airspace is purely transactional and not political. We purchase a plane ticket in exchange for access to a plane that we hope will safely take us from point A to point B in the fastest way possible. While in the air we tend not to pay attention to the complicated mapping of airspace, rather most passengers attend to vertical ascent only as long as it takes to be granted permission to move about the plane’s cabin. Airspace for the everyday airline passenger is thus the space of transit, and only when it fails on its transportation promise do we attend to the nuance of its mapping. 

Pakistani International Airways flight landing, Manchester, 2012. Photograph by Smabs Sputzer/Flickr/Creative Commons.

At the level of the nation-state airspace is transactional, too, but also clearly political. Nation-states charge overflight fees, which require airline companies to pay to fly in the air above the territorial boundaries of the nation. In effect the nation-state becomes a landlord over the sky, “renting” out its airspace to airline companies. Meanwhile, these various companies claim sovereignty over a passenger’s behavior in the plane itself, adhering to the national laws where the airline is based. Pakistan International Airlines, which flies as far west as Toronto, does not serve alcohol on board any of its flights in compliance with the dry laws of Pakistan. The in-flight sovereignty of planes differs from ships, which adhere to international law when out to sea. In a sense, airline companies can be compared to embassies in that they represent an extension of a home country’s territory beyond its geographical borders. Although an important distinction is supposed to differentiate the embassy from the commercial airline; in theory, the former exists to facilitate foreign affairs, while the latter is grounded within the realm of commercial capital. 

Cases such as Pakistan’s airspace closure, however, represent a blurring of the transactional and political. In Lefebvrian terms, the closure is a spatial strategy designed to make a political statement through economic access, but the statement is not without contradiction. In forgoing overflight fees and forcing its national airlines to cancel flights and take losses, the Pakistani government capitalized on the politics of its airspace, punishing its neighbors by restricting access to an important aviation corridor at its own expense. Without access to that corridor, flights traveling from Europe to Southeast Asia had to be rerouted through Oman, adding flying time for passengers and fuel expenses to commercial and cargo routes. Flights to and from India were also severely affected, with many Indian airlines sustaining significant financial losses. Pakistani officials claimed that India was reluctant to dialogue with Pakistan on the issue of terrorism[14]. Consequently, Pakistani airspace closures on its eastern border were to remain in effect until at least mid-June. At the time of writing, government officials in Pakistan are determining their next move now that the Indian general election is over and Narendra Modi, who has adopted a fiercely pro-India position with respect to Kashmir, has secured a second term as India’s Prime Minister. On May 31, 2019, the IAF announced via Twitter that it had removed its temporary restrictions on Indian airspace, and Indian sources believe that Pakistan will likely reopen its airspace once India officially communicates with Pakistan.

With this airspace closure, the reactivation of India and Pakistan’s long-standing dispute over Kashmir has had global consequences, affecting everyday airline passengers as well as major airline companies and stockholders. To what degree this has been an effective spatial strategy is still to be determined, but the continued relevance of the nation-state as an adaptable state formation is noteworthy. In transforming conflicts over land into conflicts in the sky, India and Pakistan have emphasized airspace as another space for the “imagined community” of the nation to continue to colonize[15]. For the traveler who aspires to be global, flying through a complicated map of aeronautical classifications, this revelation is a rude awakening—the nation-state is not going anywhere, emboldened by its ability to politicize the most atmospheric of spaces.


[1] Maria Abi-Habib, “After India’s Strike on Pakistan, Both Sides Leave Room for De-escalation,” New York Times, February 26, 2019.

[2] Maria Abi-Habib, Sameer Yasir, and Hari Kumar, “India Blames Pakistan for Attack in Kashmir, Promising a Response,” New York Times, February 15, 2019.

[3] Abi-Habib, Yasir, and Kumar. 

[4] Asad Hashim, “Profile: What is Jaish-e-Muhammad?,” Al Jazeera, May 1, 2019. 

[5] Hashim, “Profile: What is Jaish-e-Muhammad?”

[6] Jeffrey Gettleman, Maria Abi-Habib and Salman Masood, “Imran Khan Says Pakistan Will Release Indian Pilot, Seizing Publicity in Showdown,” New York Times, February 28, 2019.

[7] Gettleman, Abi-Habib, and Masoon, “Imran Khan Says Pakistan” and Maria Abi-Habib and Hari Kumar, “Pakistani Military Says It Downed Two Indian Warplanes, Capturing Pilot,” New York Times, February 27, 2019. 

[8] Vindu Goel, “India-Pakistan Crisis: Why They Keep Fighting Over Kashmir,” New York Times, March 8, 2019. 

[9] Henri Lefebvre, “Reflections on the Politics of Space,” in State, Space World, ed., and trans. Neil Brenner and Stuart Elden (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 167-184: 174.

[10] Lefebvre, “Reflections on the Politics of Space,” 184.

[11] Neil Brenner and Stuart Elden, “Introduction. State, Space, World: Lefebvre and the Survival of Capitalism,” in State, Space World, ed. Neil Brenner and Stuart Elden (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 1-48: 33.

[12] Dean N. Reinhardt, “The Vertical Limit of State Sovereignty,” Journal of Air Law and Commerce, vol. 72, no. 1 (2007), 65-137.

[13] United States, Department of Transportation, Federal Aviation Administration, Airman Testing Standards Branch, “Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge,” 15-1.

[14] Sajjad Hussain, “Ready to Discuss Issue of Terrorism With India but New Delhi 'Reluctant' to Cooperate Pak,” The Week Magazine, May 16, 2019.

[15] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983).

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