Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and flight bans are creating huge no-go areas in the skies, with a significant impact on long-haul airlines that normally traverse the skies of Eastern Europe en route to Asia.
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen confirmed on Sunday that the European Union is blocking EU airspace with Russia.
Canada also announced that the country will also close its airspace with Russia on Sunday.
The UK and Russia have banned each other’s planes from overflying or landing on their territory. More bans began to follow, with Poland and the Czech Republic restricting access to Russian planes on Friday.
All of this could have significant consequences for passengers, airlines and airfare costs as Europe and Russia revive the Cold War era when air routes were diverted around an Iron Curtain that stretched into the sky.
Apart from a noticeable hole in the air traffic map of Eastern Europe, the impact on long-haul traffic has been minimal so far. Even Russian planes using international airspace over the Atlantic are unaffected, despite the area being managed by UK air traffic control services.
But what about flights to East Asia? In the chilliest days of the Cold War, bypassing the Soviet bloc meant flying north around Greenland to Alaska, refueling in Anchorage, and then circumnavigating the Bering Strait to Japan. Flights to China bypassed the Black Sea and the Caucasus, avoided Afghanistan and entered China via Central Asia.
We’re not there yet. And perhaps, thanks to the range of modern aircraft, such steps will not be necessary.
The impact on commercial airlines already affected by Covid and their passengers will be relatively limited at this point if the bans remain in place between Russia on the one hand and the UK, Poland and the Czech Republic on the other. Likewise, the situation could easily escalate.
“Due to Russia’s geographical size, overflights by airlines from around the world pass through Russian airspace every day,” Mikael Robertsson, co-founder of aircraft tracking service Flightradar24, told CNN. “From the UK, around a dozen flights a day typically pass through Russia en route to places like Hong Kong and India.
“Hundreds of flights from the EU pass through Russia on their way to destinations in Asia. And from the US, most US-Asia cargo traffic passes through at least a small portion of Russian airspace. Pre-Covid numbers were even greater, particularly from the UK, but long-haul passenger flights have yet to really recover.
In terms of air services, Aeroflot is the only Russian passenger airline serving the UK. Britain’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 Civil Aviation Administration NOTAM (Notice To Air Missions) issued instructions to US airlines to avoid operations in areas encompassing all of Ukraine, Belarus and western parts of Russia. Few US passenger airlines are overflying Russia and non-stop flights to India are slowly resuming after Covid aviation shutdowns.
British Airways and Virgin Atlantic’s Asian networks, meanwhile, have largely failed to recover after being suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The relatively closed borders of Japan, China and other countries to international arrivals due to public health concerns mean British airlines’ passenger services remain restricted.
Read more about how global air travel could be affected by the Russian invasion of Ukraine here.
CNN’s Al Goodman, Paula Newton, Martin Goillandeau, Hada Messia, and Chris Liakos contributed to this report.