Airspace closures linked to Russian invasion of Ukraine create another set of challenges for pandemic-weary airlines
For an airline industry still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia's war in Ukraine has created new, unwelcome challenges.
One of the diplomatic responses to the war has been for countries to close airspace to Russian operators. Russia has responded individually to each country tit-for-tat, reciprocally banning those countries' operators from Russian airspace. As of Monday morning, 36 countries have been banned, including all 27 European Union countries, the United Kingdom and Canada.
Russia is by far the world's largest country by area, and the airspace closure has particularly hit European carriers hard, which utilize the airspace to access destinations throughout Asia. Some carriers are suspending service that uses Russian airspace altogether, while others are taking longer, costlier routes.
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Finnair on Monday announced it was suspending its service to Asia due to the airspace closure. Finland shares a long land border with Russia.
"Bypassing the Russian airspace lengthens flight times to Asia considerably and, thus, the operation of most our passenger and cargo flights to Asia is not economically sustainable or competitive," Finnair CEO Topi Manner said in a statement.
Finnair has a significant Asian network. This month, the airline served 10 Asian destinations from its Helsinki (HEL) hub, including Bangkok (BKK), Tokyo Narita (NRT) and Singapore (SIN).
Other airlines in the region are continuing to serve airports in Asia despite the closure. British Airways and KLM, for example, are maintaining their service to India, despite having to take a longer route through Persian Gulf states.
As the U.S. has not yet banned Russian operations, Russia hasn't responded in kind, and United Airlines continued to access Russian airspace for its India routes throughout the weekend. United is the primary U.S. passenger carrier to use Russian airspace. A carrier spokesperson told TPG on Sunday that it was in frequent contact with multiple federal government agencies about the matter.
This stands in contrast to fellow North American Star Alliance carrier Air Canada, which does face a Russian airspace ban. The carrier's flights to Delhi (DEL) from its hubs in Toronto (YYZ), Montreal (YUL) and Vancouver (YVR) now avoid the airspace, resulting in flight times that can take upwards of 90 minutes longer than before.
More: European Union, Canada close airspace to Russia in response to Ukraine war
Forcing airlines to take an alternate routing is extremely expensive and can cause operational difficulties for carriers, said Robert Mann, a former airline executive and an aviation consultant.
"It's more miles, more time en route, more fuel burn," Mann told TPG in an interview. "At some point on some routings, it forces you to add crew members. It causes the economics of the flight to deteriorate, it adds expense. It cuts utility — you may lose the airplane for a return trip."
The sudden requirement to fly longer routings also causes revenue problems for airlines, Mann said. For example, in Air Canada's case, the tickets were priced and sold under the assumption that the route would take less time to fly than it actually has. For now, that means the revenue is flat, while expenses are much higher.
"If you've already sold tickets on the flight, you can't go back to customers and say, 'uh, well, you know, it's gonna cost us more today,'" he said.
Regardless of whether or not an airline uses Russian airspace, carriers could also see higher fuel costs as a result of shocks to the oil market — something carriers have traditionally passed off to customers as well, whether as part of the base fare or as an added fuel surcharge. Emirates has already made the move, significantly increasing the fuel surcharge on award ticket redemptions, sometimes by as much as 140%.
With fuel being the highest operating cost for airlines, it's a situation the industry, undergoing a fragile recovery, doesn't need right now.