What the War in Ukraine Means for Air Travel

March 4, 2022

THE RUSSIAN invasion of Ukraine is impacting commercial aviation on multiple fronts — as wars tend to do. It remains to be seen how long the effects last, or how deeply they’ll be felt. Will NATO countries join the fight? Will tourists shy away from European destinations in general? Even in a best case scenario, this is the last thing the airline industry needs, just as the coronavirus pandemic appears to be winding down.

Oil is knocking at $130 a barrel as nations discuss ratcheting up sanctions, possibly banning the import of Russian petroleum. Although jet fuel prices have been higher in the past, the problem, right now, is that airlines lack the pricing power to stay in synch. Business travel is still down considerably, especially in transoceanic markets, and passing these costs to the customer is more difficult than it was in, say, 2008, when oil was last this expensive. The price could skyrocket further; it could stabilize or fall. Nobody knows.

Meanwhile, Russia has closed off its airspace to foreign carriers. The big issue here isn’t so much the cancellation of flights to and from Russian cities, but rather those routes overflying Russian territory, especially the country’s northern areas, including Siberia. Russia is a gigantic piece of land, and hundreds of long-haul flights overfly these regions weekly on routes connecting Europe and North America with Asia.

This might not make sense if you’re looking at a flat map or atlas; you need a globe to better visualize it. The shortest distance from the U.S. to India, for example, goes more or less due north, up over Siberia and down through the very heart of Russia. A flight from the U.K., France or Germany headed to Japan, China or Korea, similarly relies on Russian airspace.

United Airlines has suspended its flights to Delhi, but on the whole it’s the Asian and European airlines who are feeling the pain. Most flights between the U.S. and Pacific Rim cities can be re-routed without much trouble. This isn’t so for flights between Asia and Europe. Alternate routings are possible — down through the Gulf, across India and such — but they’re substantially longer, in some cases requiring a stopover. Not only does this increase fuel costs, it wreaks havoc with logistics, crew staffing and scheduling. Longer travel times mean that passengers can no longer make onward connections, and so on. It’s a very expensive problem, with disruptions rippling through an airline’s operation.

JAL and All Nippon have cancelled all of their flights to Europe. Air France, KLM, Lufthansa and British Airways have been canceling or re-routing dozens of departures. This simply isn’t sustainable.

To say nothing of the airspace over Ukraine, which has become a no-fly zone for pretty much anybody (though, as of a few days ago, Air India’s flights to and from Europe were still passing overhead). The skies above Ukraine are obviously dangerous, but this isn’t new. People have largely forgotten about it, but eight years ago, pro-Russian forces shot down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over the country’s disputed Donbas region, killing 298 people. (In 1983, a Soviet fighter jet shot down Korean Air Lines flight 007 after it strayed into restricted airspace over Sakhalin Island, killing all 246 on board. And in 1988, the Navy cruiser Vincennes shot down Iran Air flight 655 over the Persian Gulf, killing 290.)

Reciprocally, many nations have banned Russian-registered planes from their own airspace. This includes the European Union, Canada, and the United States. The big loser here is Aeroflot, which had been flying to dozens of European capitals, as well as to New York and Los Angeles. Aeroflot’s routes to Caribbean holiday destinations are affected as well.

Even worse for Aeroflot, Boeing and Airbus have cut ties with the carrier (as well as with other Russian airlines), and will no longer offer support or supplies. Aircraft lessors have rescinded their leases, and Sabre, which acts as Aeroflot’s online booking agent, will no longer allow customers to book seats. This will severely cripple Russian’s commercial aviation sector, if not ground it completely.

One of the oldest airlines in the world, Aeroflot began flying 98 years ago. In its Cold War heydays, it was by far the largest airline in existence, roughly the size of all the U.S. carriers combined. Numerous smaller airlines splintered off following the collapse of the Soviet Union, but Aeroflot itself carries on, still using its elegant, Soviet-era hammer and sickle logo.

Aeroflot has never had much of a reputation either for service or safety. Some of that is deserved, some not. Flipping through the crash records from the 1960s through the 2000s, the Aeroflot name does appear more than any other. But you have to consider its size at the time. Add up all of the crashes involving American carriers during the same span, and now the totals are a lot more equal. Since the Soviet breakup it has had only four fatal accidents, one of which involved a subsidiary.

One of my biggest thrills was riding aboard Aeroflot in 1986. We flew from Moscow to Leningrad, as St. Petersburg was still called at the time, on a Tupolev Tu-154 — the Russian version of the 727. A few days later, on the quick hop from from Leningrad to Helsinki, it was a Tu-134. The babushka cabin attendants served us a cup of tasteless, urine-colored apple juice and what appeared to be a hamburger bun stuffed with newspaper.

Next to me on the plane out of Moscow sat a Muscovite about my age –- a blond kid with a jawline like the villainous commie boxer from Rocky IV. This was 1986, remember, with the Cold War still on, and my seatmate was aghast at the novelty of encountering an actual American. He was thrilled to shake my hand and try out his English. He’d just gotten a new camera, and he took it from the overhead bin to show me proudly. At least I think it was a camera. Oversized and clunky, the device looked like a blender held sideways. He kept calling it “my apparatus.”

Our high-altitude détente continued all the way to Leningrad. “I can show you of America,” said my friend. And with that he took out a piece of paper. Beaming, he proceeded to draw me a picture of the World Trade Center, accurately placing the north tower’s cloud-popping rooftop antenna. Pointing to the buildings he said, “One hundred and ten stories!”

Ukraine, by the way, is the home of Antonov, which has been building commercial airplanes since 1946. Formerly known as the Antonov Design Bureau, the company is named for its founding designer, Oleg Antonov, and for decades was a supplier of passenger and cargo planes for the Soviet Union.

Last week, at Hostomel Airport outside Kiev, Russian forces destroyed the only example of the Antonov An-225, the six-engine behemoth originally built to carry the Soviet space shuttle, “Buran.” It was the largest airplane ever made.

I once saw the An-225 at Bradley Airport outside of Hartford, Connecticut, of all places. It had been chartered there to pick up medical equipment, we were told, for the treatment of victims of the Chernobyl disaster.


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