For 100 years, aviation has made the world a smaller place. Within 2 days, people can be just about anywhere they want to be, anywhere on Earth. If you had told someone that in the year 1900, you’d have been laughed out of town. But now, we’re taking steps backwards. In the last couple weeks, the world has gotten larger again thanks to Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Russia has been targeting Ukraine for years, but things began to escalate as the country moved more troops to the border, and that was bad news for aviation. Belarus was already an effective no-fly zone once its government forced an airplane flying over the country to divert so it could pull off a passenger it didn’t like. Despite being a neighbor, that was never a concern with Ukraine. After all, Ukraine had aligned itself more with western, pro-democracy ideals. The bigger concern was the skirmishing in the east of the country between Russia and Ukraine, with the former accidentally shooting down Malaysia flight 17 previously. Once Russia invaded the rest of the country, flights were shut down.
This set up a fairly large geographic area that had no flights, but it would have been nothing more than a minor inconvenience for most of the global carriers to just go around. But once Russian airspace became a pawn in the war, well, now things are getting much more challenging.
Countries weren’t willing to put troops on the ground to repel the Russian invasion, but they were more than happy to inflict economic pain. And a part of inflicting that kind of pain involves hindering the building blocks of trade. After all, aviation is about enabling the transport of goods and people across borders. To punish Russia, the European Union decided to go deep, removing all Freedoms of the Air.
Back in 1944 at the Chicago Convention, the world’s governments agreed on the five principle Freedoms of the Air. The very first freedom is the right for one country’s aircraft to fly over another country without stopping. That freedom is quite widely available though some places like Russia have made it more difficult over the years to get permission. Other freedoms involving stopping but not carrying passengers, carrying passengers to a country, etc.
The European Union and Canada closed their airspace not only to Russian registered aircraft but also to anything even remotely tied to Russia. That’s because many Russian oligarchs have their private jets registered elsewhere. With this, EU and Canada have closed themselves off completely from Russia, further isolating the country to punish its sins. This has nearly bisected the world, especially since Russia returned the favor. Take a look at this screenshot from Flightradar24.
You would normally expect more in the middle of the screen, but you’d also expect more at the top, flying between Europe and Asia. That route has been shut off, forcing everyone through those narrow corridors to the south.
This will most certainly have a bigger impact on Russians than elsewhere in the world. Not only does it hobble their ability to travel, but it also takes away much needed revenue from European carriers overflying Russia to get to Asia.
This is, of course, a big hit to European airlines as well, but it’s not as big as it would have been in, say, 2019. That’s because travel to North Asia remains severely depressed thanks to COVID restrictions, so the timing is great to take a stand, if you want to even consider economics.
For some airlines in the EU, it is still a tough pill to swallow. None could feel worse about this than Finnair which relies almost entirely on overflying Russia to connect people over its Helsinki hub to Asia. The airline is feeling very bearish right now, and for good reason. It will fly from Helsinki to Tokyo via the southern route, but instead of taking under 9 hours, it will take 13.
It does seem callous to even entertain this thought since lives and freedom are at stake and matter much more than economics, but we all know how the world works. Economics always comes into play. The good news here is that these airlines can survive this, even if it requires the help of the government. Russia and its airlines stand to suffer far more, especially now that Boeing has said it will stop supporting Russian airlines’ aircraft. Do we call this the Aluminum Curtain, er, uh Composite Curtain?
Bringing this back to the US, does it even matter? The impact is limited, but it’s not zero. First, it should be noted that no US airline flies to Russia. Yes, Aeroflot, the Russian majority state-owned airline flies to the US… or it did before the airspace was closed. But that was already increasingly difficult with the EU and Canada closing airspace anyway.
Just because US airlines don’t fly there doesn’t mean they won’t be impacted. Most global US airlines fly over Russia to get to points in Asia after using the polar route. Today, the biggest hit will be on flights to and from India. No, there aren’t many, but they do exist. Here’s a recent United flight from Mumbai to Newark via Flightradar24.
Just one day later, United had to taken the southern route.
But wait, that’s not Newark, you say? Correct. It took United more than half an hour longer going this way… and that only got it to Bangor where it had to stop for fuel. This is one of the flights that United will suspend for now as it looks at options.
This is also an issue for flights over the pole like Newark to Beijing… except that hasn’t flown in ages thanks to the COVID restrictions that are in place. If this drags on and on, it will become a concern. But for now, it’s really about India.
So, ultimately, the impact on US airlines is small. The impact on US travelers is probably pretty small as well, since I can’t imagine that many people need to go to Russia for any reason these days. The impact on Russia, however, is enormous. So far, Russia seems to be content absorbing all this pain, but the pain is far from done. Things are changing quickly to the point that I wouldn’t be surprised if this was already outdated by the time you read it.