Russia airspace ban could mean a return to Cold War travel: Higher prices, longer flights, and refueling in Alaska

February 28, 2022, 1:35 PM UTC

European nations and Canada shut their airspace to Russian aircraft over the weekend and Moscow quickly retaliated by prohibiting Western airliners from its space.

For frequent fliers this means diverted travel paths, canceled flights, and U-turned planes—for now. In the long term, bans would mean a return to Cold War–era flying, with refueling stops in Alaska and much higher ticket prices and flight lengths.

As the West continues to roll out sanctions to choke Russia’s access to global communication, Russia’s 10 million square miles of airspace give it a unique role in connecting Asia, Europe, and North America. The country’s airspace is the most expensive in the world to gain access to, as there is no good alternative to flying around it.

So as countries were barred from flying over Russia, European carriers were quickly forced to cancel flights to Asia. Air France has temporarily suspended flights to and from China, South Korea, and Japan while it studied flight plans that avoided Russian airspace. Finnair also halted flight routes to South Korea, Japan, and China and lengthened its trips to Thailand, Singapore, and India, noting the negative financial impact would be significant, especially if the situation prolongs.

And after two years of the COVID-19 pandemic that is still stopping flyers from traveling, it is unclear how many airlines can survive another period of low demand.

The first bans

The U.K. was the first country to cancel its airspace to Russia, when Boris Johnson announced on Thursday its freshest sanction against Russia to end its invasion of Ukraine.

Russia’s Federal Agency for Air Transport, Rosaviatsiya, quickly retorted by banning all flights by British carriers to Russia, as well as transit flights, noting the measure was taken in response to the “unfriendly decisions” by British authorities.

Germany, Spain, and France soon followed Britain, followed by the Nordic and Baltic states, all before European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced Sunday that the entire EU airspace would be closed to every Russian plane, including those of oligarchs.

Canada also said it had shut its airspace to Russian aircraft on Sunday, a move that is already causing confusion across the Atlantic. One Aeroflot flight from Miami to Moscow has already violated the new regulation, passing through Canadian airspace on Sunday after the ban was announced. Then another Aeroflot flight, which set off 30 minutes earlier from Moscow to New York, had to turn around almost halfway through the flight, as it was denied entry into Canadian airspace.

While Russia so far has only banned British, Bulgarian, and Polish aircraft from its airways, it is widely expected to retaliate further against the air blockades and other sanctions, according to Reuters.

Will Washington follow suit?

The U.S. has been slower to act than its Western allies, and its airspace is still open to Russian aircraft and vice versa. According to the Wall Street Journal, U.S. officials have discussed a similar ban, but a decision has yet to be made.

However, the U.S. embassy in Russia did tell U.S. citizens to consider leaving Russia to avoid being stranded. “An increasing number of airlines are canceling flights into and out of Russia, and numerous countries have closed their airspace to Russian airlines,” the embassy said Sunday, adding, “U.S. citizens should consider departing Russia immediately via commercial options still available.”

On the cargo side, U.S. operators UPS and FedEx have both suspended shipments into Russia.

Reuters reports that some airlines are considering resurrecting the Cold War–era practice of refueling European jets in Anchorage on their way to destinations in Asia, to avoid Russian airspace, which would massively increase the cost and time of such flights.

It’s still unclear how much more time the bans could add to flight lengths. One senior airline source told The Independent that the bans “limit options” on flights from the U.K. to Asia, but a route through northern Turkey appears to be the “best option.”

“Going south of Israel and through Saudi Arabia can add an extra couple of hours on to a flight to Islamabad,” the source said.

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