Russian airlines close to total ban from Europe’s airspace

Russian airlines will be cut off from almost all of European airspace after the EU announced a flight ban following the invasion of Ukraine.

The EU plans to shut its airspace to Russian planes, meaning they would not be able to fly over the bloc or land at any airports within it.

“Our airspace will be closed to every Russian plane — and that includes the private jets of oligarchs too,” Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission’s president said on Sunday.

The combined action came after more than a dozen EU countries unilaterally closed their airspace, while the UK, Norway, Canada and Iceland have also announced similar measures.

“Our European skies are open skies. They’re open for those who connect people, not for those who seek to brutally aggress,” Belgium’s prime minister Alexander De Croo said on Twitter.

The bans apply to all Russian airlines, including flag carrier Aeroflot, and leave the country’s carriers with dwindling options for flight paths into western Europe.

Several flights on Sunday turned round midflight and returned to Russia, including an Aeroflot flight between Moscow and Frankfurt, according to tracking service Flightradar24.

The wave of restrictions came as EU sanctions against Russia prompted Germany’s flag carrier Lufthansa and KLM to suspend flights to the country for the next seven days.

Air France has also suspended flights to Russia and through Russian airspace until further notice. As a result, all flights to China, South Korea and Japan are temporarily suspended while the carrier considers alternative routes bypassing Russia.

Moscow has responded with tit-for-tat flight bans for airlines from many countries, leaving European airlines rushing to reroute aircraft and facing longer journey times to many parts of Asia.

About 600 flights per day that take off or land in Europe would normally fly through Russia’s airspace, according to data from Cirium.

Many airlines would typically use Russian airspace when flying the “great circle route” over northern Russia and into parts of Asia, including China and Japan.

European airlines have different levels of exposure to Asia, which is still closed to many visitors because of coronavirus. At the extreme, Finnair has built its long-haul business model on routes east over Russia.

Finnair warned it faced “significant consequences” and the loss of many of its routes to Asia. “For many of our north-east Asia flights, rerouting would mean considerably longer flight time, and operations would not be economically feasible,” the airline said on Sunday.

Virgin Atlantic has suspended a route that transported cargo between London and Shanghai, while British Airways confirmed it would reroute to avoid Russian airspace, leading to longer flight times and higher fuel costs.

Speaking before the rapid set of flight bans, one European airlines executive predicted bans from Russian airspace would be “catastrophic” for the industry.

However, the damage is mitigated by very weak demand for flights to Asia.

BA was not currently flying any services to China or Japan, while it would normally operate multiple flights a day, its chief executive Sean Doyle said on Friday, as he played down the impact of the bans.

Azerbaijan Air Navigation Services said it had opened up alternative air traffic routes for airlines looking to avoid Russian airspace without adding huge diversions to flights.

Additional reporting from Sam Fleming in Brussels, Richard Milne in Oslo, Valentina Pop in Brussels, Jude Webber in Dublin, Nastassia Astrasheuskaya in Moscow, Joshua Oliver in London, Sarah White in Paris and Joe Miller in Frankfurt

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