With travel between Asia and Europe booming the closure of Russian airspace is hobbling Western airlines while proving a boon for those from non-aligned nations not subject to Moscow’s wrath.
For airlines on Russia’s airspace blacklist, avoiding the country which straddles 11 time zones in Europe and Asia is an expensive proposition.
Travelling around Russia implies larger distances and longer flight times.
A Paris-Beijing flight path over Russia is some 8,400 kilometres (5,200 miles) while skirting Russia to the south is 9,800 kilometres, according to data from the Flightradar24 website.
That translates into two hours of additional flight time.
Between added expenditure on fuel and staff, “this costs much more,” Air France-KLM’s chief executive Benjamin Smith told AFP.
“It’s a big issue for us,” he added.
And it is an even bigger issue for Finnair as it has based its long-haul strategy on serving as an air bridge between Europe and Asia crossing Russian airspace.
“If you’re Finnair, you had a large number of widebodies that were purchased in anticipation to serve a market, origin and destination pairs between Asia, Europe and North America,” said Vik Krishnan, a partner at the McKinsey consultancy.
“Your calculus is quite different than if you’re Lufthansa or Air France-KLM or British Airways,” Krishnan added.
The airspace restrictions are reciprocal, meaning that flights between Moscow and Havana have to skirt Norway to the north to avoid EU and NATO member countries which have banned Russian airlines following the invasion of Ukraine.
But these flights are insignificant compared to the 10 million Chinese tourists which visited Europe in 2019 before the coronavirus pandemic.
When Russia closed its airspace to airlines from nations it judged hostile at the end of February 2022, there wasn’t much of an impact.
The continuation of pandemic restrictions in China meant air travel between Asia and the rest of the world was just a tenth of 2019 levels.
But with China having reopened, the situation has changed.
In April, passenger travel on these routes tripled from the same time in 2022, according to industry organisation the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which is holding its annual general meeting in Istanbul this week.
The issue found itself at the centre of talks between Beijing and Paris on increasing flights, a request of the French tourism industry, but which risks weakening Air France. “We want that airlines which have the right to fly to France or the Netherlands respect the same regulations as us,” said Smith, who warned Air France-KLM risked getting “squeezed out” on these routes.
The same complaint could be heard from US airlines, whose trade association Airlines for America warned that “some foreign carriers being able to fly over Russian airspace puts US carriers at a direct competitive disadvantage”.
IATA on the sidelines
“It’s a big issue for us,” said United Airlines chief executive Scott Kirby, who noted that the closure of Russian airspace means they were no longer able to serve one of five destinations they had in India.
On the other hand, Russia overflights are also a potential risk for US airlines if a problem forces them to land.
“What’s going to happen if an airline lands in Russia with some prominent US citizens on board?” he asked. “That is a potential crisis in the making.”
That is an issue that helps counter the added cost and time of skirting Russian airspace, according to Lufthansa chief Carsten Spohr. There are clients who don’t want to be flying over Russia, he noted.
Other than Chinese airlines, those from the Gulf said Emirates and Qatar Airways continue to enjoy Russian overflight rights, as do those from Egypt and India, as well as Turkey which has hiked flights to the country in the wake of the Ukraine invasion.