Competing aviation sanctions and the narrowing of airspace available for commercial travel over Russia and Eastern Europe are adding strain on the global aviation industry, which is just starting to emerge from two years of travel restrictions related to Covid-19.
Airlines have had to reroute planes to avoid Ukraine and parts of Russia, while a handful of countries, including the U.K., have barred Russian planes from their airspace—triggering reciprocal bans by Moscow in most cases. Sharper Western sanctions on Russia and a widening conflict in Ukraine threaten to cut off more Russian airspace, a crucial corridor for many long-haul flights, particularly between Europe and Asia. The plane maker Airbus SE, meanwhile, could be caught up in restrictions over sales of planes and parts. The European Union is planning to ban such sales as part of sanctions aimed at punishing Russian President Vladimir Putin for the invasion of Ukraine.
On Thursday, the U.K. banned Russian commercial jets, including those of flag carrier Aeroflot-Russian Airlines, from its airspace, part of the U.K.’s sanctions. On Friday, Russia responded by banning British carriers from its skies. Germany’s Deutsche Lufthansa AG said late Saturday it won’t use Russian airspace for the next seven days “due to the current and emerging regulatory situation.” Eight other countries, including Poland and Bulgaria, have issued similar bans, followed by reciprocal action from Russia, according to flight-tracking service Flightradar24
Delta Air Lines Inc. said Friday it would no longer sell seats on flights operated by Aeroflot or allow the Russian national airline to sell tickets on Delta flights. The airline didn’t cite a reason for the change.
Delta said it is withdrawing its code-sharing service with Aeroflot effective immediately, ending a marketing agreement under which airlines sell tickets on each others’ flights. The move affected the sale of tickets on a handful of Aeroflot-operated flights out of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport, and it removed Aeroflot’s right to sell tickets on Delta flights from Los Angeles and New York. Delta doesn’t operate flights to Russia or Ukraine. Efforts to reach Aeroflot weren’t successful.
There were also unexpected repercussions for Aeroflot on the ground. Manchester United, the British soccer club, said it would withdraw its sponsorship agreement with the Russian airline. The carrier had been the team’s official airline sponsor since 2013 and provided chartered flights for the team. “In light of events in Ukraine, we have withdrawn Aeroflot’s sponsorship rights,” the club said in a statement on its website. “We share the concerns of our fans around the world and extend our sympathies to those affected.”
Early Thursday in Europe, the continent’s air-traffic control coordinator warned commercial traffic to avoid Ukraine’s airspace. European authorities have since expanded that warning to include Moldova, Belarus, all operations in Russia within 200 nautical miles of the Ukrainian border and airspace in southwestern Russia. The restrictions don’t restrict flights to or from Moscow itself. The changes forced a handful of airliners to change course midflight.
Some airlines have canceled flights out of caution. Japan Airlines Co. said it has canceled a weekly return flight between Moscow and Tokyo, citing safety precautions. The Dutch flag carrier, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, part of Air France-KLM SA, said it has scrapped its daily evening flight to Moscow in line with a new policy that prohibits crews staying overnight in Russia.
The U.S. cargo operators United Parcel Service Inc. and FedEx Corp. said they were preparing contingency plans for operations to Russia, without specifying actions being considered. Both, along with the express carrier DHL, a unit of Deutsche Post AG, said operations to Ukraine have been suspended.
The creeping airspace restrictions highlight the integral role Russia plays in global air travel. The quickest route for flights between Europe and the Pacific Rim is flying across Siberia. In the 1950s and 1960s, much of Russian airspace was kept closed by the Soviet Union. It wasn’t until the thawing of relations between the Soviets and the West in the 1970s that Siberian airspace was opened to Western and Asian carriers, which at the time would make a stop for fuel in Moscow.
Since then, aircraft have been able to fly the distance directly, and the route has become a critical part of the global flow of trade and passengers between Asia and both Europe and the U.S. The route has provided a steady stream of revenue for Russian authorities, who charge fees for the use of the airspace and control access tightly. Almost 195,000 commercial flights passed through Russia’s airspace in 2021, according to the country’s federal air transportation agency. As with most routes, traffic has been reduced during Covid-19 travel bans. Before the pandemic, that number reached 301,000.
“Losing the right to fly through Russian airspace would definitely have an operational impact,” said a spokesman for the National Air Carrier Association, a trade group whose members include cargo carriers such as Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings Inc.
For British and Russian carriers, the fallout has been immediate. British Airways canceled a flight to Moscow scheduled to take place Friday and said it would be canceling its regular three-times-a-week service to the Russian capital. It cautioned that flights to destinations including India, Pakistan, Singapore and Thailand will be forced to reroute to avoid the airspace, lengthening those flights.
A British Airways Boeing 787 en route to London from Bangkok, which typically flies over Russia, was rerouted midflight on Friday, taking a sharp left turn over Kazakhstan to fly through Azerbaijan and Georgia airspace before crossing the southern part of the Black Sea close to Turkey.
Among sanctions that the European Union plans to approve is a ban on the sale of aircraft and spare parts to Russia. That could disrupt planned sales of jets by Airbus. The company has 14 A350 wide-body aircraft still due for delivery to Aeroflot. “We are analyzing the impact of the sanctions,” a spokesman for Airbus said. “We will comply with all sanctions and applicable laws once they are in force.”
Airbus rival Boeing Co., meanwhile, has design centers in Russia that employ more than 2,000 under contract. The company said its operations in Russia have continued.