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Air today gone tomorrow - war and the perils of vanishing airspace

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaTit-for-tat airspace closures following Russia's Ukraine war could lengthen flying time and make tickets more costly. But all is not lost.

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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Russia's war in Ukraine results in tit-for-tat airspace closures

Tit-for-tat airspace closures are lengthening flying time and adding to fuel costs. And all of this is getting reflected in the passenger's ticket price.

AS WESTERN airspace goes off limits for Russian airlines and Russian airspace is in turn denied to several carriers, it may appear to many that the neat red lines crisscrossing the globe marking flight routes have been rudely ripped and travel upended.

A tit-for-tat closure of airspace following Russia’s Ukraine invasion has created fresh challenges for airline route planners, adding to both cost and travel time as planes are rethreaded through a maze of jurisdictions representing political leanings, shifting alliances and animosities, levees for overflights, fuel and payload restrictions to compensate for distance, and agreeable time slots.

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Escaping the current carnage partially or wholly are countries on the sidelines of the UN Russia censures, like India, China, UAE, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran and a host of African nations.

In reality, the air travel map has been a work in progress since the 1990s when China and Russia grudgingly opened limited bits of their airspace to commercial flights, suddenly shrinking East-West distances — and ticket cost. In some ways the route map has been rewound back to the Eighties, a time of leisurely and pampered travel. And who complained back then?

{In reality, the air travel map has been a work in progress since the 1990s when China and Russia grudgingly opened limited bits of their airspace...

The simple fact is overflight restrictions lurk everywhere. Vast chunks of China’s skies (up to 80 percent) are controlled by the military, leading to epic delays even on high business traffic trunk routes like Hong Kong-Shanghai or Beijing-Shanghai. These remain narrow corridors without sufficient bandwidth for expanded traffic.

Russia serves up a similar gauntlet for international carriers with the money and the moxie. Then there are the fees, on weight and distance for cargo, and per revenue seat for passenger flights. A mid-sized aircraft flying from one end of Europe, say Spain, to Denmark, would attract overflight fees from as many as six countries. This works out to around US$1,800. Cargo overflights of Russia may incur costs of up to US$120 depending on aircraft type. Passenger flights are charged per head.

Sovereign airspace and steadily expanding Air Defence Identification Zones (ADIZ) are used as proxies when countries engage in political spats. China has forcefully applied its zones in the South China Sea. Yet, unbeknownst to many, the US effectively controls huge chunks of the Pacific. Thus, innocently flying from Korea to the Philippines or New Zealand, a carrier may be liable for fees of around US$26 per nautical mile for US-controlled airspace, no small beer when one considers the distances involved. (US mainland overflights attract a US$62 fee per 100 nautical miles). A flight from Seoul to Auckland would typically cover 5,981 nautical miles, with the entire mid-section over American controlled space.

Central Asian minnow Afghanistan charges almost US$1,000 as a flat fee for overflights.

India and Pakistan have from time to time blocked overflights when political hotheads got worked up. Qatar has been recently ostracised by much of the Middle East (Saudi Arabia and the UAE), necessitating roundabout flights that add several hours and dollars to flights between Doha and Africa. Taiwanese airlines flying to Europe must similarly skirt China with an added time penalty of up to five hours for a northern or southern detour.

In August 2012 when Russia joined the World Trade Organisation (WTO) its Siberian overflight rates were brought down in accordance with European practices. This small gain has been blown up. Earlier, the Russian norm was to permit just one airline per country (though British Airways and Virgin both wangled passage). Canada and Russia have been major beneficiaries of overflight regimes due to their location and spread.

European and US-based airlines reeling from the effects of Covid may not see any immediate crippling impact from Russian airspace closures as they are focused on lucrative transatlantic summer travel as borders reopen. Europe-bound passengers on flights from Asia will tend to feel more pain.

Some global routings may become "uneconomical or impractical" with increased flying distances and cost, according to aviation consulting group RW Mann & Company. Costs on some trips are estimated to be up by between US$3,000–$10,000 per hour based on fuel charges and aircraft size. An American Airlines service from New Delhi to New York, for example, has had to stop to refuel in Bangor, Maine, as its new more southerly route has pushed both extremities just out of non-stop range.

One positive outcome for some may be the emergence of new intermediate hubs like Delhi that were bypassed as new long-range aircraft helped seamlessly link high demand destinations like Hong Kong and London. Quarantine burdened Hong Kong has already become an inconvenient hub for some airlines that have moved operations to cities like Bangkok.

Meanwhile, the airspace snakes and ladders will continue, as will travel.

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