Russian airlines cut off from growing swath of European airspace

Fatima Fokina

Russian airlines were cut off from an increasing swath of European airspace on Saturday, as five countries announced bans and Germany was making preparations to do so following the invasion of Ukraine.

Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovenia all declared bans on Russian airlines using their airspace or landing at their airports, while Reuters reported that Romania had also done so. The countries join the UK, Bulgaria, Czech Republic and Poland in sealing off their skies.

German’s transport ministry wrote on Twitter late on Saturday that minister Volker Wissing supported closing German airspace to Russian airlines and had ordered preparations for this.

Announcing Estonia’s ban earlier in the day, the country’s prime minister Kaja Kallas said: “There is no place for planes of the aggressor state in democratic skies.”

The bans apply to all Russian airlines, including flag carrier Aeroflot. The wave of restrictions came as the latest round of EU sanctions against Russia prompted Germany’s flag carrier Lufthansa and KLM to suspend flights to the country for the next seven days.

KLM said the decision had been made because the sanctions, which were announced late on Friday, prohibited sending any spare aircraft parts to Russia, even if they were intended for the airline’s own use.

“This means KLM can no longer guarantee that flights to Russia can return safely,” KLM said. As a result, the carrier said it had cancelled all flights to Russia for the next seven days as well as any that pass through the country’s airspace.

Lufthansa, meanwhile, said it would not “use Russian airspace for the next seven days due to the current and emerging regulatory situation”.

Earlier this week, Moscow warned it would retaliate against countries that imposed flight restrictions. As of Saturday, the Kremlin had banned airlines from the UK, Bulgaria, Poland and the Czech Republic from flying over or landing on its territory.

The bans from Baltic states and eastern European governments leave Russian airlines with dwindling options for flight paths into western Europe.

Tracking data from Flightradar24 showed an Aeroflot carrier took a significant detour over northern Europe and the Baltic Sea on a Saturday morning flight between Moscow and Budapest, adding 70 minutes to its journey. It made the trip before several Baltic states announced their decisions to seal off their airspace.

The restrictions that Moscow has already imposed have presented operational difficulties for UK airlines, which would typically use Russian airspace when flying the “great circle route” over northern Russia and into parts of Asia, including China and Japan.

Virgin Atlantic has suspended a route that transported cargo between London and Shanghai, while British Airways confirmed it would reroute to avoid Russian airspace, leading to longer flight times and higher fuel costs.

European airlines expect to be banned from Russian airspace if EU leaders hit Russian carriers in future rounds of sanctions, a scenario one executive said would be “catastrophic” for the industry.

Airlines have held planning calls and were expecting to have to resort to “massive rerouting” if banned from Russian skies, the person said.

European airlines have different levels of exposure to Asia, which is still closed to many visitors because of coronavirus. At the extreme, Finnair has built its entire long-haul business model on routes to Asia over Russia.

However, the damage is so far mitigated by very weak demand for flights to Asia.

BA was not currently flying any services to China or Japan, while it would normally operate multiple flights a day, its chief executive Sean Doyle said on Friday, as he played down the impact of the bans.

Azerbaijan Air Navigation Services said it had opened up alternative air traffic routes for airlines looking to avoid Russian airspace without adding huge diversions to flights.

Additional reporting from Nastassia Astrasheuskaya in Moscow, Joshua Oliver in London and Sarah White in Paris and Joe Miller in Frankfurt.

Video: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: what next? | FT Live

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