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.

 

Related Stories:

LETTER FROM CHERNOBYL
UKRAINIAN 737 SHOT DOWN NEAR TEHRAN
THE MH17 CATASTROPHE

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18 Responses to “What the War in Ukraine Means for Air Travel”
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  1. Bruce says:

    Thanks, Rod.

    Yes, I was thinking it must be something to do with jetstreams. But you’d need one that was both very powerful and very consistent to justify such a huge increase in distance.

  2. Rod says:

    Bruce: “Or did Canada join the war and I missed it?”
    At all events, Canada will do whatever Washington tells it to do.

    “Or is it something else?”
    I’m no expert, but consider the jet-streams (polar & subtropical), which move west to east. Not sure exactly how they fit in Here but it’s often worth going out of your way (lengthening your route) westbound in order to avoid fighting strong headwinds.
    Flying eastbound is the reverse: strong upper-level winds speed you along.
    So perhaps that has something to do with all this.

  3. Bruce says:

    There’s lots of press today about Cathay Pacific planning to run the longest scheduled passenger flight route. Until now, its Hong Kong to New York route has gone over Russian airspace, but now they’re going to avoid it. See https://www.theguardian.com/business/2022/mar/30/cathay-pacific-plans-worlds-longest-passenger-flight-avoiding-russia, or https://www.traveller.com.au/cathay-pacifics-new-york–hong-kong-service-is-the-worlds-new-longest-flight-h22ri9.

    I don’t get it.

    The reports say that, to avoid Russia, they’ll fly over the Atlantic, Southern Europe and Central Asia for a route of 16,618km, surpassing Singapore Airlines’ 15,349km route from Singapore to New York.

    I’ve drawn up rough routes on gcmap.com, and that 16,618km route looks reasonable – I’m getting 16,313km if I draw HKG-NQZ-IST-JFK.

    But if they go the other way, it’s a lot shorter. If I draw HKG-HND-ANC-JFK, I still avoid Russian airspace and it’s only 13,930km.

    The normal direct route over Russia is 12,990km, so the Tokyo-Anchorage route is less than 1000km longer.

    Am I missing something here? Is there a reason that they’d go the long way round? Is it a result of wind or other weather? Or did Canada join the war and I missed it? Or is it something else?

  4. Gottettaz says:

    From Agence France-Presse (30 March 2022):
    Cathay Pacific is planning the world’s longest passenger flight by rerouting its New York to Hong Kong service over the Atlantic instead of the Pacific, the airline has said, in a new path that steers clear of Russia.
    The flight path will cover just under 9,000 nautical miles (16,668km, or 10,357 miles).
    On Tuesday evening, Cathay listed on its website a New York-to-Hong Kong flight for 3 April – a non-stop journey it said would stay in the air for 17 hours and 50 minutes.
    It will surpass a Singapore Airlines flight travelling from the south-east Asian city-state to New York, which flies a shorter distance in a longer time – about 15,343km (9,534 miles) in 18 hours.

  5. Rod says:

    Soviet transports were often denigrated in the West for being fuel-inefficient & noisy (though if you ever heard the BAC111, you knew that people who live in glass houses…).

    Speaking of glass houses, I once flew on a Tupolev 134. It had a a ‘glass’ nose, like many of the earlier Soviet transports. Siberia not only had far-flung airports with short, rough runways. It also had precious few navaids, so a navigator with a perch offering a good view was indispensable.

  6. Cameron Lindsay says:

    You forgot to mention Iran Air flight 655 shot down by the US in 1988 in your list of downed airliners.

  7. Greybeard says:

    Loved your description of the Aeroflot in-flight service. I once read of an Aeroflot flight where the service comprised taking a box of oranges and dumping it while still climbing, so they rolled down the aisle. I guess that’s class-based service–the further forward you sat, the better your chances of getting an orange! I found it hard to believe even then, mostly because of the risk of a broken ankle by an FA due to a stray, but otherwise it seems perfectly plausible.

  8. I read somewhere that it would cost $3B to replace that huge plane. Can that possibly be accurate Patrick? How many of these monsters are currently in use in Russia?

  9. UncleStu says:

    I saw the Antonov An-225, from way across the airfied, during a stopover in Canada. Even from very far away, it was just jaw dropping.

  10. Thomas says:

    Must have been quite an adventure traveling in Russia during the Cold War. The Tupolev Tu-154 was pretty similar in concept to the Boeing 727. One big difference was the ability to operate from unpaved or gravel runways. It has low-pressure tires and beefy six-wheeled main bogies. I guess some airports out in Siberia were pretty basic. Seems kind of amazing that a 180 seat airliner that cruises at Mach 0.86 can take off on a grass strip.
    I do remember seeing them at the Frankfurt airport about twenty years ago. Compared to western planes the engine noise during takeoff was incredibly loud.

  11. Bruce says:

    Patrick, I have to thank you for this article. I was supposed to be flying on ANA from Sydney to London via Tokyo next month. It was your article that alerted me to possible cancellation.

    At the moment, they’re running a rolling cancellation on that flight – it’s always cancelled for the next eight days from whenever you check. My April flight is not yet cancelled.

    I called ANA (three minutes to get through to a real flesh-and-blood person at the Tokyo headquarters who was able to help me – vastly better than the two hours it takes with Qantas). The woman at the call centre said there was a 90% chance that my flight would be cancelled, and said I should book an alternative flight with a Middle-Eastern carrier who wouldn’t need to go over Russian airspace. She said I should book this as soon as possible because if all the Japanese and Korean flights are cancelled, the Middle Eastern carriers will either sell out or be very expensive.

    She also told me not to cancel my ANA flight, because “If you cancel, you lose $400, but if you wait for us to cancel, you’ll get all your money back.” She was the best call-centre person ever, and I told her so.

    So I’ve booked with Qatar Airways, and I’m waiting for ANA to cancel my flight.

    Without your article, I’d have forgotten about this, and wouldn’t have booked an alternative flight soon enough – it would have been either impossible or brutally expensive. So your article saved my trip. Thank you.

  12. D R Lunsford says:

    I *think* there is another incomplete airframe of an An-225. They were originally built to ferry the Soviet “Buran” Space Shuttle. The 2nd one was never completed, but it *may* exist somewhere. Let’s hope it does.

    -drl

  13. Matt says:

    @Jeff, from what I understand domestic flights in the USSR were heavily subsidized for Soviet citizens. They were essentially public transit.

    Also, literally every civilian aircraft in the Soviet Union, even the tiniest crop duster, was considered part of Aeroflot. That obviously inflated Aeroflot’s size somewhat.

  14. Lurk says:

    The AN-225 was an intermittent visitor to Brize Norton. I first saw it early one morning, coming into land, as I was cycling to work. I had to get off my bike and just gawp. It looked absolutely unreal and it lost none of its power to astonish me on subsequent sightings. There are far more important losses – lives especially – this last week, but I shall still miss it.

  15. Simon says:

    As I understand it, the problem with the leased jets is that the lessors are required to take them back since they are now often prohibited from doing business with Russia due to sanctions (and even if they weren’t, the Russians can’t pay them anymore so…).

    The problem is then that these jets usually can’t just be flown back to the lessors due to blocked air space. So those jets will sit in Russia somewhere unused and because of Airbus/Boeong sanctions, not getting serviced and seeing replacement parts. They will essentially decay in place. There’s been some talk that Russia could just nationalize them as a sort of retaliation, but without parts and maintenance they’ll likely be of little good to them.

    What a waste. Just like destroying that behemoth of an An-225. It was parked, of no military use. Destroying it had no military purpose. It was about nothing else than Putin being Putin and showing he can be the world’s greatest *ick when he wants to.

    I heard there’s one Aeroflot A320 that got stuck in GVA because they didn’t fly it out before the EU closed their airspace. With Switzerland surrounded by EU air space it got stuck there. I wonder if it eventually will be impounded by authorities there. The lessor will probably want it impounded as collateral for mounting GVA storage fees the Russians certainly won’t be paying for.

  16. Jeff says:

    Where were all of those citizens of the old USSR flying to on so many Aeroflot planes? How could people who had to line up for life’s basics every day afford to fly anywhere, especially in numbers large enough to support an airline that big? Makes you wonder…

  17. Gottettaz says:

    Without providing further details, Reuters reported on Thursday 3 March that “Japan Airlines said it planned to reroute one of its London flights on Friday [4 March] heading eastward over Alaska, Greenland and Iceland rather than flying the usual westbound route over Russia. The flight will not require a fuel stop.”

  18. Another JT says:

    I saw YouTube channel (MentourNow) that was going into more detail about Aeroflot, in particular noting that a large percentage of it’s planes are leased from companies that are based in western Europe and that one of it’s main maintenance facilities is in Germany, both of which may be affected by economic sanctions that have been put in place recently. Additionally, sourcing replacement parts may become an issue if sanctions remain in place. Beyond just restricting airspace and routes, the current situation may have huge ramifications for Russian air travel.