How the Ukraine conflict can redraw the world air map

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and aviation bans are creating huge no-fly zones in the skies, with major implications for long-haul airlines that regularly cross Eastern Europe en route to Europe. ASIAN.

All of this could have significant consequences for passengers, airlines and flight costs if Europe and Russia revive the Cold War era, when routes in the skies were diverted around the Great Wall. Iron curtain stretched into the sky.

So far, the UK and Russia have banned each other’s planes from flying over or landing on their territories. Other bans have already begun to be implemented, with Poland and the Czech Republic both restricting access to Russian planes on Friday.

Aside from punching an important hole in the air traffic map of Eastern Europe, there has been little disruption to long-distance traffic so far. Even Russian planes using international airspace over the Atlantic are not affected, although the area is managed by UK-based air traffic services.

But what about flights to East Asia?

During the worst days of the Cold War, avoiding the Soviet Bloc meant flying north around Greenland to Alaska, refueling at Anchorage, and then rounding the Bering Strait to Japan. Flights from China pass through the Black Sea and Caucasus, avoid Afghanistan, and enter China via Central Asia.

We are not there yet. And perhaps thanks to the advent of modern aircraft, such steps will not be necessary.

The impact on commercial airlines already affected by COVID-19 and their passengers at this time would be relatively limited if the ban were between Russia on the one hand and the UK, Poland and the UK on the other. Czech Republic. Similarly, the situation could easily escalate.


“Due to Russia’s geographical size, airline flights around the world pass through Russian airspace every day,” Mikael Robertsson, co-founder of aircraft tracking service Flightradar24, told CNN. “From the UK, normally about a dozen flights a day pass through Russia en route to places like Hong Kong and India.

“From the EU, hundreds of flights each transit through Russia en route to destinations in Asia. And from the US, most cargo traffic between the US and Asia passes through at least a small portion of its airspace. Russia. Pre-COVID-19, the numbers are even bigger, especially from the UK, but long-haul passenger flights have not really recovered.”

In terms of flight services, the only Russian passenger airline serving the UK is Aeroflot. The UK’s largest airline, British Airways, served Moscow before the war. BA’s parent company, International Airlines Group, has announced that its airlines will not fly over Russian airspace.

At the start of the conflict, the US Federal Aviation Administration issued a NOTAM (Notice of Aviation Missions) order for US airlines to avoid operating in areas that included all of Ukraine, Belarus, and Ukraine. western regions of Russia. Some airlines carry US passengers via Russia, with direct flights to India slow to restart after the airline’s COVID-19 shutdown.

Meanwhile, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic’s Asian networks have largely remained unrecovered after being suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The relatively closed borders of Japan, China and other countries to international arrivals for public health reasons mean that passenger service by UK airlines remains limited.

Airlines are another story.

Already sustained by the online shopping boom since the pandemic began, as well as the demands driven by the pandemic response, freight carriers like FedEx, UPS, Atlas, Kalitta, Western Global and others could see even bigger effects.

These airlines regularly fly over Russia, but their route network structure is different from that of passenger airlines. Shorter flights are available to save fuel and allow the use of older or lower range aircraft such as the Boeing 767, McDonnell-Douglas MD-11 and Boeing 747-400.

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The main problems can be traced back to excessive flight rights.

Most passenger flights between Europe and East or Southeast Asia bypass Russia as a simple function of geography.

For example, from London to Tokyo, there is an 11 to 12 hour flight, often flying over Russia and the Nordic countries.

The first option for airlines to avoid Russia is to fly south, circling the Black Sea and Caucasus before flying over Central Asia. This would be a slightly modified, post-Soviet version of the London-India-Hong Kong routes flown during the Cold War.

Depending on how far south the Black Sea plane is, this will be about two to three hours longer than the direct London-Tokyo flight time, but an hour shorter than the second option over Alaska.

The second option is to fly north, over Greenland and as far north as Canada to Alaska and the Bering Strait, avoiding eastern Russia. This was the default situation for Anglo-Japanese flights for much of the Cold War, when many airlines added a refueling stop in Anchorage, Alaska, for flights between Europe and East Asia. .


In modern terms, this Alaska route would add about 1,500 to 2,000 nautical miles to the shortest Great Circle route between London and Tokyo, or about three to four hours.

But modern aircraft may not even need to stop at Anchorage. A relatively extensive route from London to Tokyo via northern Alaska, the Aleutian Islands and around the Kuril Islands ranges between 6,500 and 7,000 nautical miles.

This is a modern aircraft, with about 20 routes before and after COVID-19 longer than that, including Dubai to Houston, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Auckland or Hong Kong to Boston and New York.

These flights are regularly performed by aircraft such as the Airbus A380 or Boeing 777-300ER, which are about 20 years old in terms of technology. Planes that are more than a decade old, such as the Boeing 787 and the Airbus A350 or A330neo, all of which are currently in widespread service, will be even more capable of flying these routes.

Notably, it’s unlikely that this stopover route will run into issues around ETOPS, the set of rules under which twin-engine aircraft must remain within a certain amount of potential diversion airports. Modern jets are certified for this time limit of more than six hours, and airports in Greenland, northern Canada, Alaska and Japan are even more in range.

The escalation orders could include other European countries joining the UK in banning overcrowded Russian airlines and planes. If the action was at the NATO level, it would include Norway (which is a NATO member) but not Sweden and Finland. If at the EU level, the opposite might be true: Sweden and Finland are EU members but Norway is not, even though it has joined the EU in some existing sanctions against Russia.

In the event of any action, Russia is likely to retaliate, meaning more detours north or south. Russia could also ban excessive spotlights from any sanctioned country, although this seems less likely.

One prelude to the whole question, however, is that China and the extent to which it opposes economically important traffic between it and key international markets is becoming expensive and complicated. more complicated. While Chinese airlines can fly unless Russia bans excessive flights based on destination country, the question of cargo is a particularly complicated one in this case.


The ban would have a financial impact on airlines, as well as on Russia, which has charged international airlines hundreds of millions of dollars a year for transit rights.

Addison Schonland, partner at consulting firm AirInsight Group, explains: “Dozens of flights from the EU to Asia transit Russian airspace every day. “All of them are twin-aisle or large transport aircraft. That means they generate decent daily revenue for Russia even if they are economically viable routes between the point of origin and the point of departure. origin and destination.”

In the event of a diversion, Schonland said, “Operators will incur more costs by flying less economically efficient routes and, as a result, may also have to pay higher airline fees.

As Schonland pointed out, the MH17 disaster of 2014, in which a Malaysia Air passenger jet was shot down during fighting over eastern Ukraine, “nobody wants to be anywhere near the conflict zone.”

“I would expect most flights to start flying south and the long haul, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see operators considering going ‘backwards’ over Alaska,” Schonland noted. “We now have access to much better weather reports, and it’s possible that when there’s a good gust of wind, flying east will work best: for example, taking the route south from EU to Asia, then east through Alaska from Asia to EU.”

Notably, as Airline Weekly analyst Madhu Unnikrishnan highlights, these transactions are handled through the International Air Transport Association, an agency that represents the world’s airline IATA outside of scope. of the SWIFT interbank payment network, which could be used against Russia in future sanctions.

It remains to be seen whether Europe may also specifically ban express payments, with or instead of action on SWIFT.

Whatever the next developments on the impact of this war on commercial aviation – and it’s safe to bet that there will be at least a lot of excessive no-fly bans – they will likely change the way we fly.

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