Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and aviation bans are creating huge no-go zones in the skies, with major implications for long-haul carriers that normally ply the skies of Eastern Europe in route to Asia.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen confirmed on Sunday that the European Union is closing EU airspace to Russia.
Canada also announced that the country was also closing its airspace to Russia on Sunday.
The United Kingdom and Russia have banned each other from flying over or landing on their territories. More bans began to follow, with Poland and the Czech Republic both limiting access to Russian planes on Friday.
All of this could have significant consequences for passengers, airlines and the cost of flying if Europe and Russia relive the Cold War era, when air routes were diverted around an iron curtain that s stretched across the sky.
As well as punching a significant hole in the Eastern European air traffic map, the disruption to long-haul traffic has been minimal so far. Even Russian aircraft using international airspace over the Atlantic are unaffected, although the area is managed by UK-based air traffic services.
But what about flights to East Asia? During the coldest days of the Cold War, avoiding the Soviet bloc meant flying north around Greenland to Alaska, refueling in Anchorage, then rounding the Bering Strait to reach Japan. Flights to China skirted the Black Sea and the Caucasus, avoiding Afghanistan and entering China through Central Asia.
We are not there yet. And perhaps thanks to the range of modern aircraft, such steps will not be necessary.
The effects on commercial airlines already affected by Covid and their passengers will at this stage be relatively limited if the bans remain between Russia on one side and the UK, Poland and the Czech Republic on the other. Likewise, the situation could easily escalate.
“Due to Russia’s geographic scale, airline overflights from around the world pass through Russian airspace every day,” Mikael Robertsson, co-founder of aircraft tracking service Flightradar24, told CNN. “From the UK, normally a dozen flights pass through Russia each day en route to places like Hong Kong and India.
“From the EU, hundreds of flights each pass through Russia en route to destinations in Asia. And from the United States, most cargo traffic between the United States and Asia passes through at least one small part of Russian airspace. Pre-Covid the numbers were even higher, especially from the UK, but long-haul passenger flights haven’t really recovered yet.”
In terms of flight services, the only Russian passenger airline serving the UK is Aeroflot. Britain’s largest carrier, British Airways, served Moscow before the war. BA’s parent company, International Airlines Group, has announced that its airlines will not fly over Russian airspace.
Early in the conflict, the US Federal Aviation Administration issued NOTAM (Notice To Air Missions) instructions to US carriers to avoid operations in areas including all of Ukraine, Belarus and western parts of Russia. Few US passenger airlines fly over Russia, with nonstop flights to India slow to restart after Covid aviation shutdowns.
The Asian networks of British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, meanwhile, have largely not recovered after being suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The relatively closed borders of Japan, China and other countries to international arrivals for public health reasons mean that British airline passenger services remain limited.
Learn more about how global air traffic could be affected by the Russian invasion of Ukraine here.
CNN’s Al Goodman, Paula Newton, Martin Goillandeau, Hada Messia and Chris Liakos contributed to this report.