How the Ukraine conflict could redraw the global aerial map

(CNN) — Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and aviation bans are creating huge no-go zones in the skies, with major implications for long-haul carriers that normally ply the skies of Eastern Europe in route to Asia.

All of this could have significant consequences for passengers, airlines and the cost of flying if Europe and Russia relive the Cold War era, when air routes were diverted around an iron curtain that s stretched across the sky.

So far, the UK and Russia have banned each other from flying over or landing on their territories. More bans began to follow, with Poland and the Czech Republic both limiting access to Russian planes on Friday.

As well as punching a significant hole in the Eastern European air traffic map, the disruption to long-haul traffic has been minimal so far. Even Russian aircraft using international airspace over the Atlantic are unaffected, although the area is managed by UK-based air traffic services.

But what about flights to East Asia?

During the coldest days of the Cold War, avoiding the Soviet bloc meant flying north around Greenland to Alaska, refueling in Anchorage, then rounding the Bering Strait to reach Japan. Flights to China skirted the Black Sea and the Caucasus, avoiding Afghanistan and entering China through Central Asia.

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

The effects on commercial airlines already affected by Covid and their passengers will at this stage be relatively limited if the bans remain between Russia on one side and the UK, Poland and the Czech Republic on the other. Likewise, the situation could easily escalate.

The Shadow of Covid

On February 4, several UK-registered aircraft were transiting Russian airspace.

Courtesy theftRadar24

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

“From the EU, hundreds of flights each pass through Russia en route to destinations in Asia. And from the United States, most cargo traffic between the United States and Asia passes through at least one small part of Russian airspace. Pre-Covid the numbers were even higher, especially from the UK, but long-haul passenger flights haven’t really recovered yet.”

In terms of flight services, the only Russian passenger airline serving the UK is Aeroflot. Britain’s largest carrier, 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.

Early in the conflict, the US Federal Aviation Administration issued NOTAM (Notice To Air Missions) instructions to US carriers to avoid operations in areas including all of Ukraine, Belarus and western parts of Russia. Few US passenger airlines fly over Russia, with nonstop flights to India slow to restart after Covid aviation shutdowns.

The Asian networks of British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, meanwhile, have largely not recovered 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 British airline passenger services remain limited.

Cargo airlines are another story.

Already strained by the online shopping boom since the start of the pandemic, as well as the demands imposed by the pandemic response, freight carriers such as FedEx, UPS, Atlas, Kalitta, Western Global and others could see other effects.

These airlines regularly fly over Russia, but the way their route networks are structured is different from that of passenger airlines. There are shorter flights 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.

North-south diversions

Flights from Amsterdam, Paris Charles de Gaulle and Frankfurt were also transiting Russian airspace on February 4.  Picture - FlightRadar24

Flights from Amsterdam, Paris and Frankfurt were also transiting Russian airspace on February 4.

Courtesy theftRadar24

The main issues are likely to come from overflight rights.

Most passenger flights between Europe and East or Southeast Asia fly over Russia based on simple geography.

London-Tokyo, for example, takes about 11-12 hours to fly, usually flying over Russia and the Nordic countries.

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

Depending on the distance south of the plane from the Black Sea, this would add about two to three hours to the London-Tokyo nonstop timing, but would be slightly less than an hour shorter than the second option over Alaska .

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

Distance vs time

In modern terms, this route from Alaska would add some 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 planes may not even need to stop in Anchorage. A relatively generous routing from London to Tokyo via northern Alaska, the Aleutian Islands and around the Kuril Islands is between 6,500 and 7,000 nautical miles.

It’s well within the range of modern aircraft, with around 20 pre- and post-Covid-19 air routes longer than that, including Dubai to Houston, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Auckland or Hong Kong to Boston and New York.

These flights are or have been regularly carried out by aircraft such as the Airbus A380 or the Boeing 777-300ER, which are around 20 years old in terms of technology. Aircraft more than a decade newer, such as the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 or A330neo, all now widely operated, would be even more capable of flying these routes.

Notably, this stopover route is unlikely to run into any issues around ETOPS, the set of rules that twin-engine aircraft must stay within a certain time of potential diversion airports. Modern jets are certified for this time to be over six hours, and airports in Greenland, northern Canada, Alaska and Japan are more than within reach.

Escalations could include other European countries joining the UK in banning Russian airlines and overflights. If this action was at NATO level, it would include Norway (which is a member of NATO) but not Sweden and Finland. If it were at the EU level, the reverse might be true: Sweden and Finland are EU members but Norway is not, although it has joined the EU in some of the existing sanctions against the Russia.

In case of action, Russia would then probably retaliate, meaning no more detours north or south. Russia could also ban overflights to any sanctioned country, although that seems less likely.

A spoiler to the whole issue, however, is China and the extent to which it objects to the economically important traffic between it and major international markets being made more costly and complicated. While Chinese airlines could fly unless Russia bans overflights depending on the country of destination, the freight issue is particularly complicated in this case.

Financial implications

US-registered planes are also transiting through Russia, especially cargo planes on the Pacific side of the country, such as here on February 4.  Picture 2 - FlightRadar24

US-registered planes also transit through Russia, particularly cargo planes on the Pacific side of the country, as seen here on February 4.

Courtesy theftRadar24

The ban will have a financial impact for airlines, but also for Russia, which charges international airlines hundreds of millions of dollars each year for overflight rights.

“There are dozens of flights from the EU to Asia passing through Russian airspace daily,” says Addison Schonland, a partner at consultancy AirInsight Group. “All of them are twin-aisle passenger planes or large freighters. This means that they generate decent daily income for Russia, even though they are economically efficient routes between origin and destinations.”

In the event of a diversion, says Schonland, “operators will incur additional costs by taking less economically efficient routes and, therefore, could also pay more overflight charges. Passengers and freight forwarders can expect this that surcharges are coming soon”.

As Schonland points out, the 2014 MH17 disaster, in which a Malaysia Air passenger plane was shot down during fighting in eastern Ukraine, “no one wants to be near the conflict zone”.

“I expect most flights to start by flying south and do the long way, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see operators considering taking the ‘way back’ over Alaska. “, notes Schonland. “We have access to much better weather reports now, and it could be that when there is a good tailwind, flying east works better: for example, taking the southern EU route to Asia, then go east over Alaska from Asia into the EU.”

In particular, as the analyst Madhu Unnikrishnan in Highlights of the weekthese transactions are processed through the International Air Transport Association, an industry body representing global airline IATA outside the scope of the SWIFT interbank payment network, which could be used against Russia in future sanctions.

It remains to be seen whether Europe could also specifically ban overflight payments alongside or instead of action on SWIFT.

Whatever the next developments of the impacts of this war on commercial aviation – and it’s a safe bet that there will be at least more overflight bans – they may well end up changing the way we fly.

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