Russia Threatens to Close Airspace to European Carriers

Dmitry Medvedev in 2011.

Dmitry Medvedev in 2011.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said he might ban European airlines from flying over Siberia, the route that most carriers fly to Asia. The action would be in retaliation for last week’s European Union sanctions, which included cancelling the leasing agreement on Boeing 737s used by Aeroflot’s new low-cost carrier Dobrolyot, resulting in the suspension of its flights.

Bare-bones Dobrolyot launched in mid-June with $90 one-way fares between Moscow and the Crimea. The flights were politically symbolic, coming just two months after Russia annexed the Black Sea peninsula that was Ukraine territory.

“We should discuss possible retaliation,” Medvedev told the Russian transport minister and a deputy chief executive of Aeroflot, according to Reuters.

The respected Russian business daily Vedomosti reported “Russia may restrict or ban European airlines from flying over Siberia on Asian routes.”

If that happened, it would be a tectonic shift for European carriers serving Asia, increasing flying times and fuel burn while playing havoc with airline schedules around the world. But Asian airlines, like Air China, Singapore, Cathay Pacific and others, would be permitted to continue flying over Siberia.

Within hours of Medvedev’s comments, shares in European airlines fell. Finnair lost 5.6 percent, Air France-KLM fell 3.8 percent and shares in British Airways’ parent company, IAG, dropped 2.9 percent, ABC News reported.

Lufthansa alone operates about 180 flights a week through Siberian airspace.

Vedomosti did not name sources, but reported “foreign and transport ministries were discussing the action.” It was suggested such a ban could cost airlines like Lufthansa, British Airways and Air France more than $1 billion over three months, but industry experts outside Russia say that’s exaggerated.

The ban would also hurt Russia. It receives fly-over fees of thousands of dollars per flight, about $300 million a year from all foreign carriers flying through Siberian airspace.

Avoiding the route would flout efficiency and likely cost airlines as much as 50 percent more than paying fees for transit. One Russian aviation consultant estimated European airlines would lose around $100-200 million per year.

But the expert also told Reuters that dollar figure was less than the cost to Russia in lost fees.

The Soviet Union did not sign the ICAO Freedoms of the Air treaty at the end of the Second World War and that gives them the right to collect fly-over fees from foreign carriers.

If Russia does impose a ban on European airlines, carriers will be forced to take circuitous “Silk Route” flyways or else jet through Anchorage, Alaska.

Back in the Cold War days, Western airlines were banned from flying through Russian airspace and mostly operated by way of the Persian Gulf or the polar route via Anchorage en route to Asia.

Even today, not all Asian carriers have fly-over rights. Taiwan’s Eva Air, for example, take roundabout routings to Europe.

“Carriers would experience longer flying times and higher expenses if forced to avoid transiting Russian airspace,” an aviation analyst told ABC News. “Trips to destinations within Russian airspace would be canceled. Some rerouted trips might require technical stops for fuel. It would be a significant inconvenience to customers and have significant self-imposed costs to the Russian economy.”

Correction: Philippine Airlines has flyover right to Siberia. An earlier version of this article stated that it did not.

[Photo: iStock]

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Comments (Showing 3 of 3)

  • TMOliver at 5:03pm August 06, 2014

    An appropriate response to the threat/ Simple, for European nations to cancel all Russian airline landing rights in Europe, leading Russia to play “Tit for Tat” canceling European carriers landing rights in Russia. “Supporting our Allies” (if we still have the gumption to do so), US airlines and the US government could act in parallel.

    Let Moscow’s imperial dreams turn into financial nightmares. We forget that when we talk of Russia’s supplying natural gas to Europe, Russia needs the money with a priority approaching Europe’s need for the NG.

  • flynew at 5:30pm August 06, 2014

    Correction – Philippine Airlines (PAL) has flyover rights to Siberia.

  • homelyboy at 6:00pm August 07, 2014

    TMOliver, this “Tit for tat” solution would be what Putin only is dreaming about. It would mortally hurt the non-fascist minority in the country. Those who approve of Putin’s fascist policies would mostly not be hurt or even affected directly — and the indirect effect on them would only drive them to “unite stronger around our dear leader” in his holy combat against the “liberal-paederastic aggression”.

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