Russia to ban overflying by EU airlines?

5 Aug 2014 by Alex McWhirter

So far, the European Union has held the upper-hand in its sanctions dispute with Russia. Vital trade and business links have already been suspended and Russian low-cost carrier Dobrolet grounded (see news, August 4).

But now the Russian authorities are considering playing their trump card — ban overflying by EU airlines, according to Reuters.

While this is currently just a discussion, should overflying rights be withdrawn it would wreak havoc with the schedules of EU carriers and have a major impact on trade and business between the EU and its fast-growing Asian markets.

But does Russia have the right to do this? Most certainly, it has. As Business Traveller has mentioned before, the then Soviet Union never signed the ICAO Freedoms of the Air treaty drawn up in Chicago at the end of the Second World War.

It means that not only does Russia have the right to deny overflying, it can also demand hefty royalty payments from foreign carriers, something which provides its government with revenue amounting to hundreds of million dollars a year.

Until the early 1990s, the Soviet Union and latterly Russia banned most foreign airlines from overflying its territory. Flights from, for example, Europe to Asia had either to take circuitous "Silk Route" routings or else travel via Anchorage in Alaska.

It remains the case today. Russia will not automatically grant overflying rights, which means that a handful of carriers like, for example, Taiwan's Eva Air or Philippine Airlines take roundabout routings to Europe (see news, November 2013).

Some of our readers will recall the days when a flight to mainland China would routinely take over 20 hours, roughy twice what it would take today. They may also recall when most flights between Europe and Tokyo or Seoul routed via Anchorage, a flight time of over 18 hours.

Not only would such a move increase airline costs (fuel, staffing, aircraft utilisation), it would also discourage the large traffic flows between Europe and Asia, and vice versa, which were not in existence in the Soviet days.

The Silk Route is already busy. How could it cope with so many extra flights? And the Anchorage routing is lengthy — non-stop flights between Europe and the Far East may not be possible.

In short, Europe would no longer be as close to Asia as it is today.

Alex McWhirter

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