The World Gets Larger and That’s Not a Good Thing

Aeroflot, Government Regulation

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.

24 comments on “The World Gets Larger and That’s Not a Good Thing

  1. For UA- EWR-BOM and SFO-DEL are suspended while ORD/EWR-DEL still continue to operate as they can avoid Russian airspace.

    1. EWR-DEL is even more impacted by the need to avoid Russian airspace. This is clearly a utilization decision.

    2. EWR-HKG and ORD-HKG would be even more affected (not sure about PVG and PEK) if they were running. This was a huge concern in 2014 when Russia last invaded Ukraine and the US considered shutting down airspace.

  2. The before & after images of the routings of planes registered to Russian airlines would also be interesting to see… Even if the “after” is before the US banned Russian planes from its airspace.

    There were some interesting ATC conversations captured when Aeroflot planes contacted ATC as they entered Canadian airspace shortly after it had been closed to Russian planes. On initial contact, the Canadian controllers very politely enquired if the Aeroflot pilots had read “NOTAM Romeo”, which contained notice of the airspace closure… The pilots and ATCs who were caught in the middle were quite professional about the whole thing, at least, and that was rather encouraging to hear.

  3. Prior to the Era of big gas tanks, it was the norm to fly from northern Europe to Tokyo via ANC. Why not now. In fact many cargo flts are operated this way.

      1. Yes. Guess I am much older than you. ANC was and is huge cargo. And most airlines stopped to refuel before going to and from Asia and Europe.

        https//MaltabyZelt.home.blog/

        1. Oh, I know that ANC is a big cargo hub/stop. I have spent some time there (in the AS lounge) watching 747 cargo jets come and go. I was mostly curious about the Europe to Japan routing.

          I realized (after posting) that you said Northern Europe and I used FRA because I was mentally picturing LH Cargo flights. But turns out for HEL the distance penalty is even worse.

          http://www.gcmap.com/mapui?P=hel-nrt;+hel-anc-nrt

          I guess in the days when cargo jets needed fuel stops that was a reasonable thing to do, but today (well, eight days ago)?

          1. The thing is, most cargo isn’t time sensitive. If the cargo airlines fill their 747 Freighters with cargo, they can’t load enough fuel to make it from Asia to North America nonstop because the airplane would be too heavy. They’d rather take the extra time to stop in ANC to refuel than carry less cargo so they can bring enough fuel to go nonstop.

            1. To refine your point a little, I would argue that that most air cargo isn’t “nonstop or direct” sensitive, and is a bit less time sensitive than passengers.

              For all but the most urgent and perishable air cargos (for which shippers pay a premium to travel on the most direct air cargo routings, and which often go in the bellies of long-haul passenger planes; note that before COVID hit, > 50% of international air cargo traveled in passenger planes), a stop and layover or two to refuel the plane or move the cargo to another plane isn’t a big deal.

    1. People loves non-stop. For someone lives in Europe and going to Asia, the european airlines used to be attractive due to the non-stop services despite less fancy products comparing to the middle east 3. Now, if you have to stop in either Anchorage or the middle east anyways, that attractiveness goes a way quickly. That said, with the 787 and 350, most Europe-East Asia routes are probably physically doable even with a detour these days, thus an Anchorage fuel stop may not be necessary. But the logistics and economic parts will require some careful calculations from the airline to see if it makes sense to do so in the long term as the sanctions drags on. If their math shows Anchorage one stop makes sense, they will eventually set up shops and do it.

  4. One thing I haven’t seen mentioned much in the mainstream media coverage of the airspace bans is the money that Russia makes from the overflight fees that it charges foreign planes to fly over its territory, fees that are (at least in the West) generally considered notoriously high and extortionate…

    One source (https://twitter.com/AlexInAir/status/1497137975406256159 , not sure how accurate or credible) totals these fees at USD $420 million per year for European airlines alone.

  5. Cranky,
    While this is slightly off-topic is airline flying into Ukraine with supplies and equipment but not pax?

    1. Probably not many if any are flying into Ukraine airspace. For one, Ukraine closed it. And then there is the significant risk of getting shot down by Russia. Not sure that any insurance company would a accept that risk. I believe humanitarian and military assistance is currently flowing over the wester land borders into the country.

    1. Does that mean they can’t even sell domestic tickets anymore? Presumably they don’t have a home-grown system to fall back on?

      1. Oliver – No, it’s just out of the GDS now, so third parties can’t sell it.
        If Sabre removes Aeroflot from its res platform, then it wouldn’t be able to take bookings.

        1. I’m waiting for the shoe to drop on the res system.

          Airbus has indicated that they will no longer support airplanes in Russia, including those not operated by a Russian airline. Boeing I believe has done the same thing.

  6. The largest US carrier impact is to United which can’t catch a break in trying to redeploy its aircraft that cannot be used for its massive E. Asia network. AA and DL already rerouted their E. Asia flights away from Eastern Russia airspace and American never got overflight rights for its India service while United built a large following between the US and India. India is sitting on the sidelines of all this so their airlines will benefit. European airlines can still serve India but nonstops to the US and Canada just don’t work w/o being able to overfly Russia.
    Add in that United is already being the most impacted by the regional airline capacity shortage and lack of pilots and United is facing a mountain of strategic challenges even as summer frequency on many of its hub routes is being pulled way down.
    There will be lots of negative economic impact on both sides of the Atlantic on top of the enormous human losses. Coming right after covid makes this a particularly vulnerable time for the world.

      1. Wolfe Research just released its revised financial expectations for the US airline industry and now expects United to burn $6 billion in cash this year and for American to burn $4.4 billion.
        There is a huge amount of capacity that remained in the US airline system other than what carriers voluntarily held back during covid which will now have to be pulled out.
        Not to diminish the humanitarian aspects of this tragedy but the financial impact on the airline industry just from $110/bbl crude oil will be enormous – even before factoring in reduced demand and blocked airspace which makes airline burn even more high priced fuel just to operate some routes.
        United’s DEL-ORD flight operated last night at 17 hours and change. Modern aircraft can fly further than ever but the economics of even operating many normal routings don’t work at oil as high as it is.

  7. Delta’s latest A330-900 delivery flight is enroute from Toulouse to Tokyo (NRT) just behind Air France’s scheduled flight from Paris which is taking about 90 minutes longer than scheduled – but it is possible to operate from parts of Europe to E. Asia while avoiding Russian airspace. AF is taking a slightly more northerly track over the southern part of the Black Sea (which a number of European airlines are using) while Delta appears headed even further south.

    The shortest distance may longer be possible but aviation will adapt; this isn’t the first time there have been major airspace closures.

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Cranky Flier