October 2, 2022
Avoiding Airspace: The Return of Cold War Flying

Avoiding Airspace: The Return of Cold War Flying

DALLAS – As of this week, airlines are banned from flying over parts of the world due to airspace blockades and sanctions amid the ongoing Ukraine crisis. In this article, we’ll take a look at the consequences airlines must face from the current geopolitical tensions.

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine at the end of February, the country’s airspace has been closed off from the world. A few days later, as a part of the European Union (EU) sanctions against Russia, European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen announced on February 27 the ban of all Russian carriers from flying over EU airspace. Other countries acted accordingly, including Canada, Iceland, Norway, and the UK.

In retaliation to these sanctions, Russia decided to also ban airlines from more than 35 countries from flying over its airspace, including all EU airlines, the UK, Canada, and others. As a result, many European airlines, such as Air France (AF) and Finnair (AY), stopped flying to Russia altogether, also canceling flights to China, Japan, and South Korea.

Then, on March 1, 2022, US president Joe Biden decided to ban Russian aircraft from entering US airspace. Conversely, US airlines rarely overfly Russia, so the Russian airspace blockade will not affect them in any significant way. On the same account, Lufthansa (LH) also cut cargo flights to Asia due to the Russian airspace closure.

European airlines are flying again to Asia, but they must avoid Russian airspace to do so, which means operating longer flights at an extra cost.

AY is very impacted by the recent events. Photo: Alberto Cucini/Airways

Longer Flights for European Airlines

For airlines in Europe, flying to Asia while avoiding Russia’s airspace means aircraft covering far more distance. In this week’s Eurocontrol air traffic assessment, the organization published a document highlighting the consequences of the closure on aircraft movements worldwide. The most impacted routes are the ones from Europe to Japan.

For instance, flights from Paris-Charles de Gaulle (CDG) to Tokyo (NRT) will now take 2 h and 30 min more to complete. Due to its geographical situation, AY flights from Helsinki (HEL) to NRT will take 4 h and 46 min longer than before.

Finnair was counting on the Asian market to further connect Europe and Asia during the coming summer season. In fact, as of 2019, almost 73% of AY’s long-haul capacity was going to Asia, according to airlinedata.com.

Many Asian countries still have strict travel restrictions, so the Russian airspace closure will impact the Finnish airline even more.

AF flight 276 from CDG to NRT now has to avoid Russia going south, which means an extra 2H30 flight time. Photo: Flightradar24.com

For Russia and the US

Aeroflot (SU), Russia’s main international airline, has, of course, been impacted by the airspace blockades. SU had to add 3 h to fly from Moscow (SVO) to Belgrade (BEG), Serbia. By the end of the week, the airline had announced the cancellation of all of its international flights following a decision by Russia’s Federal Air Transport Agency.

US airlines are not extremely impacted by these events as they don’t fly to Russia and rarely overfly the country. However, some flights from the US to India do overfly the country. Still, some flights departing from the West Coast can avoid Russia without much trouble.

However, this is not the case for flights from San Francisco (SFO) to New Delhi (DEL), such as that of United Airlines (UA) flight 867. The most recent of these flights was operated on February 28 and took 15 hours, according to flightradar24.com.

United announced that flights from SFO to DEL and Newark (EWR) to Mumbai (BOM) were suspended. However, the airline still flies to DEL from EWR and Chicago (ORD).

Aeroflot stopped flying internationally altogether. Photo: Daniel Gorun/Airways

Higher Operating Costs

Longer flight times mean more fuel consumption, which in turn means higher operating costs for airlines. The price of an additional hour of flight depends on the weight and the type of aircraft. However, we know for sure that flying a passenger jet for an hour is not cheap. Cost-wise, then, the new airspace closures will have a significant economic impact on airlines.

Lufthansa (LH) CEO Carsten Spohr told Reuters “Some long-haul planes are now up to 15 hours in the air to reach countries like China, Japan, South Korea.” From Frankfurt (FRA), it now takes LH about 12 to 13 hours to reach Tokyo (HND), adding about two hours of extra flight time.

However, the CEO explained that these higher fuel costs would be partly offset by ceased royalties to Russia for overflights. Every European airline has had to pay significant taxes to Russia for the right to overfly the country. Spohr also said that due to the important cargo demand in Asia, these flights were still worthwhile.

Due to the COVID-related travel restrictions in Asia, the number of passengers traveling on these routes was extremely low, so the longer flight times for these flights will have a minor impact on LH’s bottom line, according to Mr. Spohr. The CEO did say that these routes would see an increase in operating costs by a single-digit million-euro amount every month.

According to airlinedata.com, Asia currently represents about 20% of LH’s long-haul capacity while the region represents 60% of AY’s.

LH flies to Asia from its hubs in Francfort (FRA) and Munich (MUN), Germany. Photo: John Leivaditis/Airways

Airlines in Japan

Airlines in Japan, such as Japan Airlines (JL) and All Nippon Airways (NH), are also affected by airspace blockades. Both airlines had to cancel all flights to/from Europe on Thursday, and the carriers are now operating just a handful of them and avoiding Russian airspace.

The former airline made the decision to reach London (LHR) via another route altogether. Instead of flying west and overflying Russia to land at LHR about 12 hours later, the flight now goes east and flies over Canada, Greenland, and Iceland before finally reaching Europe 15 hours later. This is a long leg, even for long-haul aircraft. We can therefore suppose the aircraft was very light, which allows for longer flights.

Today, it seems like Japanese airlines have canceled most of their European flights, except for JL flights to LHR, with the new and extremely long route. Other Asian airlines may also be impacted, but for now, Korean carriers such as Korean Air (KE) and Asiana Airlines (OZ) still overfly Russia, routes which could change in the coming days.

JL uses Boeing 787 Dreamliners to go west instead of east and LHR. Photo: flightradar24.com

Returning to Cold War Flying?

With the current airspace closures, many pundits are saying we may be returning to cold-war travel. Indeed, from the end of WWII until the end of the 1980s, most western airlines were not able to fly over Russia. It meant they needed to make fuel stops along their routes to reach their final destinations.

This is how Anchorage (ANC) became a strategic airport. Alaska was the best option to refuel airplanes while flying from Europe to eastern Asia. It meant longer flights, more expensive tickets for passengers, and significant financial consequences for airlines. Will airlines start making stops at ANC again?

While the current crisis has some similarities to the Cold War period, specifically avoiding Russian airspace, there is one big difference between now and the 1970s: modern aircraft, such as the Airbus A350 and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, feature an impressive range. Just the A350-900 ULR can fly up to 19 hours nonstop.

A JL Boeing 787 Dreamliner flew from HND to LHR, crossing the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Photo: Brad Tisdel/Airways

ANC: a Strategic Position

Operating modern aircraft means airlines can fly the same route over Alaska as before, but without needing to make any fuel stops. We see that carriers are already operating these types of routes, such as JL flights from HND to LHR and back. Other airlines in Japan or Europe may try to operate their flights using a similar route on their modern widebodies.

However, Reuters reported this week that ANC had received inquiries from airlines concerning the airport’s capacity and ability to welcome international flights overflying Alaska. It could be good news for the airport, making it significantly more important amid the current crisis. Airlines would, however, have to pay additional airport fees, and flights would take even longer.

We have no way of knowing how long the current situation will last. What we do know is that the airspace closures will have a significant impact on airlines’ operating costs and, ultimately, ticket prices, not to mention the industry’s footprint on the environment; sacrifices most are willing to make.

Stay tuned to Airways for the latest commercial aviation developments amid the current crisis.

Featured image: The geopolitical tensions impact the travel industry a lot. Photo: Ocean Hoevet/Airways

Aviation enthusiast and private pilot student, I am fascinated by the aviation industry.

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