Russia’s flag carrier, Aeroflot, is canceling its international flights to stop foreign governments seizing its planes

March 7, 2022, 9:33 AM UTC

Russia’s flagship airline, Aeroflot, is halting almost all its international flights over fears that its planes will be impounded overseas by countries that have imposed sanctions on Russia’s aviation industry in retaliation for President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

The state-owned Aeroflot offered flights to 146 destinations worldwide before Russian troops crossed the border into Ukraine last month. The flag carrier has halved its international route numbers since the invasion began, prompted by the EU, the U.S., and Canada closing their airspace to Russian planes.

The closure not only sealed off Aeroflot’s flights to Europe and North America, but also any destination that required crossing the now-blocked airspace. Industry analyst Rob Stallard of Vertical Research Partners told Reuters the combination of sanctions and closed airspace has left Russia’s aviation sector “similar to where it was under Soviet rule.”

Starting Tuesday, Aeroflot will fly to only one foreign airport: Minsk, the capital of Belarus, and one of Putin’s few remaining allies.

The drastic move from Russia’s leading airline is due to fears that foreign entities will seize its aircraft if any of the Aeroflot fleet lands outside Russia.

Last month, the EU ordered companies that lease jets to airlines to end their current contracts with Russian groups by March 28. The order means lessors need to get their planes back in order to lease them out again. Foreign governments could assist jet lessors in carrying out recall orders and in seizing leased planes that land in their borders. Russia and Belarus likely won’t.

Losing leased planes could be devastating for Russian airlines. According to data from Cirium, an aviation analytics company, just over half of all planes flying for Russian airlines are leased from overseas owners. Airlines often rely on renting aircraft to expand capacity without the need to raise capital to buy planes themselves. 

Last week, Rosaviatsiya, Russia’s federal air-transport agency, recommended that airlines with foreign-owned planes should halt all international flights—apart from those bound for Belarus—owing to the “very high risk of grounding or arrest of the aircraft of Russian companies abroad.” Aeroflot then said it was canceling its international flights because of “new additional circumstances impeding the operation of flights.” 

Russians can still fly foreign airlines to a number of destinations in the Middle East and Central Asia, including Armenia and Uzbekistan. Yet no airline—Russian or foreign—now flies between Russia and China, despite concerns that the two countries’ economies will be more closely connected in the wake of Western sanctions.

Beijing’s strict controls on international flights may be a cause of the lack of flights. The country operates a “Five One” policy, in which local airlines can run only one international flight per week to any country, and foreign airlines can operate only one flight to China per week.

Aeroflot flew direct flights to China throughout the pandemic, including during a period when Chinese nationals were banned from entering Russia owing to COVID fears. The ban was lifted in June 2021. Yet Aeroflot’s cancellations mean there are currently no direct flight links between China and Russia.

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