Avoiding Airspace: The Return of Cold War Flight

DALLAS – As of this week, airlines have been banned from flying over parts of the world due to airspace lockdowns and sanctions amid the ongoing Ukraine crisis. In this article, we will examine the consequences that airlines have to face from the current geopolitical tensions.

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

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

Then, on March 1, 2022, US President Joe Biden decided to ban Russian planes from entering US airspace. Conversely, US airlines rarely fly over Russia, so the blockade of Russian airspace will not significantly affect them. On the same account, Lufthansa (LH) also cut cargo flights to Asia due to the closure of Russian airspace.

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

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

Longer flights for European airlines

For European airlines, flying to Asia while avoiding Russian airspace means planes travel much further. In this week Eurocontrol Air Traffic Assessment, the organization released a document highlighting the consequences of the closure on aircraft movements around the world. The most impacted routes are those linking Europe to Japan.

For example, flights from Paris-Charles de Gaulle (CDG) to Tokyo (NRT) will now take 2.5 hours longer. Due to its geographical location, AY flights from Helsinki (HEL) to NRT will take 4 hours and 46 minutes longer than before.

Finnair was counting on the Asian market to further connect Europe and Asia in the upcoming summer season. In fact, in 2019, nearly 73% of AY’s long-haul capacity was destined for Asia, according to airlinedata.com.

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

Flight AF 276 from CDG to NRT must now avoid Russia to the south, which means an additional flight time of 2.5 hours. Photo: Flightradar24.com

For Russia and USA

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

American airlines are not extremely affected by these events because they do not fly to Russia and rarely fly over the country. However, some flights from the United States to India fly over the country. Still, some flights from the west coast can avoid Russia without too much trouble.

However, this is not the case for flights from San Francisco (SFO) to New Delhi (DEL), such as United Airlines (UA) flight 867. The most recent of these flights was operated on February 28 and lasted 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 has completely stopped flying internationally. Photo: Daniel Gorun/Airways

Higher operating costs

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

Lufthansa (LH) CEO Carsten Spohr said 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 around 12-13 hours to reach Tokyo (HND), adding around two additional flight hours.

However, the CEO explained that these higher fuel costs would be partially offset by the cessation of royalties to Russia for overflights. Every European airline had to pay significant taxes to Russia for the right to fly over the country. Spohr also said that due to high cargo demand in Asia, these flights are still worthwhile.

Due to 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 results, according to Spohr. . The CEO said these routes would see an increase in operating costs in the high single digits of one million euros each month.

According to airlinedata.comAsia currently accounts for approximately 20% of LH’s long-haul capacity while the region accounts for 60% of AY’s.

LH serves Asia from its hubs in Frankfurt (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 only a handful and avoiding Russian airspace.

The former airline made the decision to reach London (LHR) by a completely different route. Instead of flying west and overflying Russia to land at LHR about 12 hours later, the flight now heads east and overflies Canada, Greenland and Iceland before finally reaching the Europe 15 hours later. It’s a long step, even for long-haul aircraft. It can therefore be assumed that the plane was very light, which allows longer flights.

Today, it looks like Japanese airlines have canceled most of their European flights, except for JL flights to LHR, with the new route extremely long. Other Asian airlines could also be impacted, but for now Korean carriers like Korean Air (KE) and Asiana Airlines (OZ) are still flying over Russia, routes that 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 flight?

With the current airspace closures, many experts say we could be reverting to Cold War travel. Indeed, from the end of World War II until the late 1980s, most Western airlines were unable to fly over Russia. This meant they had 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 for refueling planes flying from Europe to East Asia. This 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 bears some similarities to the Cold War period, particularly 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, have an impressive range. Only the A350-900 ULR can fly up to 19 hours non-stop.

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 having to make a fuel stop. We see carriers 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 jumbo jets.

However, Reuters reported this week that the ANC had received inquiries from airlines regarding the airport’s capacity and its ability to accommodate international flights overflying Alaska. This could be good news for the airport, making it much more important in the context of the current crisis. Airlines, however, would 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 airspace closures will have a significant impact on airline operating costs and ultimately ticket prices, not to mention the footprint of the airline. industry on the environment; sacrifices most are willing to make.

Stay tuned Airlines companies for the latest developments in commercial aviation in the context of the current crisis.

Feature Image: Geopolitical tensions are having a huge impact on the travel industry. Photo: Ocean Hoevet/Airways

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