Aviation has been an early target of the EU’s sanctions against Russia following its invasion of Ukraine.
Brussels started relatively softly, banning the sale of aircraft and parts to Russian companies in the first package of measures adopted last week, but the severity grew in tandem with the violence of Moscow’s actions. By Sunday all Russian aircraft — commercial and private — were banned from EU airspace, prompting flight trackers to show Russian airliners making spirals before being forced to fly back home.
In response, Russia banned EU airlines — as well as those from any other nations with similar measures — from its skies.
Here are some of the implications for airlines, leasing companies, manufacturers and passengers.
1. Longer flight times
Avoiding Russian airspace means lots of re-routing for Europe-to-Asia flights — returning to the Cold War situation when overflights were a rarity.
Many airlines that fly to or over Russia have canceled flights for the next week while they sort out how exactly they’ll manage new flight paths. The most affected EU airline is Finnair, according to data from network managers Eurocontrol, with 18 flights a day going over Russia to Asia.
“Bypassing the Russian airspace lengthens flight times to Asia considerably and, thus, the operation of most of our passenger and cargo flights to Asia is not economically sustainable or competitive,” Topi Manner, Finnair CEO, said on Monday.
Route extensions for aircraft avoiding Russian airspace will vary between 90 minutes — for example on the Frankfurt-Beijing route — and five hours, for flights between Helsinki and Tokyo, according to a Eurocontrol briefing.
It’s not just passenger routes that are affected.
Virgin suspended its cargo-only flights between London Heathrow and Shanghai, which usually operate four times a week, while the airline tries to figure out how to re-route those services.
Airlines don’t just need to work out new routes but also need to think about how they’ll keep crew on board without breaching regulations on maximum working hours.
2. Refueling question marks
Longer flight paths mean airlines are more likely to need to stop to refuel.
Emirates President Tim Clark said he’s looking at the airline’s operations to the west coast of the United States, which usually go through Russian airspace. “If push comes to shove, we can still fly,” he told the Telegraph, but added that it could require a stop in Europe to refuel.
Alaska’s Anchorage airport, a refueling stop for Europe-to-Asia flights during the Cold War, has been receiving calls from airlines. That extra stop would add a substantial amount of time: Going polar, according to aviation analyst John Walton, would add five-and-a-half hours to a Beijing to Helsinki flight that currently takes eight hours, beyond the range of some aircraft.
Flying further will also hit airlines’ bank balances as they’ll have to pay for that extra jet fuel.
Around half of Russia’s commercial fleet is leased, mostly from companies based in Ireland, the global center of the industry.
The financial sanctions mean it will be difficult for Russian airlines renting those planes to pay lessors, even if they’re economically able to, said Donal Hanley, an Irish aircraft leasing and finance law expert. The immediate concern for leasing companies is whether they can actually get their planes back from Russia — but that should be alleviated by wiggle room within the EU sanctions allowing for those flights to be returned, according to a senior European Commission official.
The financial impact on the leasing companies will be softened by country concentration risk clauses that don’t allow more than a certain percentage of a company’s entire fleet to be in any one country, said Hanley.
4. Overflight cash
Russia announced on Monday that it would restrict flights in its airspace to 36 countries in response to aviation-related sanctions. That means longer flight times for long-haul carriers, but it also means Russia misses out on cash that helps to fund its state carrier, Aeroflot.
Moscow is known for charging particularly high fees; the most recent publicly available figures, from 2008, show EU carriers were paying $420 million per year.
5. Planemakers pull back
Boeing has temporarily closed its office in Kyiv and paused pilot training at its Moscow campus. Airbus said in a statement that it’s premature to comment on the impact of the sanctions but added that it has a backlog of 14 A350s destined for Aeroflot and around 40 single-aisle (A220 and A320 family) planes to be delivered through lessors.
Both Boeing and Airbus receive titanium from Russian company VSMPO-Avisma but Airbus said: “Geopolitical risks are integrated into our titanium sourcing policies. We are therefore protected in the short/medium term.”
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