Dmitry Medvedev, then Russian Prime minister, once called the looming prospect of closing our skies to flights by foreign airlines “a bad story.” However, it was not us who started it. It was the response to the unprecedented package of sanctions by the West regarding the complete closure of their airspace to Russia.
According to Valery Shelkovnikov, a member of the Flight Safety Foundation (FSF) and President of the Flight Safety International Advisory and Analytical Agency, everyone will lose from this confrontation.
To understand the importance of Russia's enormous airspace over land and parts of the Arctic and Pacific Oceans, it is necessary to go back in history. In the Soviet Union, air routes of European and South Asian carriers ran from European capitals, for example, to Tokyo via the North Pole with a stop in Anchorage, Alaska. There was a crew change and then the flight continued over the Pacific, which is always fraught with problems. Especially for twin-engine airliners, which the main Western fleet is equipped with today. ICAO standards require alternate airfields along the route within their reach for a two-and-a-half hour flight, designed in case one of the engines fails. Not to mention that such a flight would take four to six hours longer.
During “perestroika and glasnost” [a political movement for reformation within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) during the late 1980s widely associated with CPSU general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev and his glasnost (meaning “openness”) policy reform,] the USSR allowed all airlines to fly nonstop on short routes along trans-Siberian and trans-Asian air routes from airports in Europe to airports in Southeast Asia and back. During this period, airlines gained multibillion-dollar benefits not only through fuel savings, but also through fleet turnover.
In the late 1990s, the Soviet Union made another goodwill gesture by allowing the first-ever flights from airports in North America across the Arctic Ocean, our airspace to airports in Southeast Asia and back.
Incidentally, it was Shelkovnikov, as head of the Main Directorate of Air Traffic of the USSR Ministry of Internal Affairs, who was instructed on behalf of the government to sign a Memorandum on the organization of such flights in Washington in 1990. Over a period of more than 30 years, airlines have made multibillion-dollar profits.
Russia, as a legal successor of the Soviet Union, introduced the Magadan Oceanic Flight Control Center using modern ICAO satellite technology (CNS ATM) in the early 1990s to ensure high flight safety. The media enthusiastically welcomed these innovations. One of the articles was even called ‘The sky of Russia to be opened – the world to fly in a new way!’ Valery Shelkovnikov's reaction to the news of the ban on Russian airlines flying over Europe was summed up in one sentence: “The cowboys have shot themselves in the foot!”
After all it is clear that Western companies are taking billions of dollars out of their revenues after our response to the ban on flights in their skies. One of the first SOS signals came from Helsinki. Finnair, the flag carrier and largest airline of Finland, was one of the first to receive from the USSR permission to fly short routes. Its entire business model depends on long-haul flights through Russia. Thus, the company has already announced that the restrictions “will deal a tangible blow to traffic between Europe and Asia.”
Finnair had to cancel all passenger and cargo flights to Seoul, Osaka, Tokyo, Shanghai and Guangzhou in early March. Flights to Bangkok, Phuket, Singapore and Delhi will now be altered to bypass Russia, which will significantly increase their duration. This also raises the price of such flights, making some of them economically unviable.
“The majority of our passenger and cargo traffic to Asia bypassing Russian airspace is economically impractical and uncompetitive,” said Finnair President Topi Manner.
Other carriers had to make alterations to their routes. Air France has suspended flights to China, Japan and South Korea until adequate bypass routes are developed. The International Airlines Group, which includes British BA and Spanish Iberia, confirmed redirecting flights to Southeast Asia to avoid Russian airspace.
Of course, Russia will be also at a disadvantage. According to Shelkovnikov, Russia also loses hundreds of millions of dollars a year from royalties and air navigation fees collected from companies flying through our territory. It is clear that the West, in its desire to strike the most significant blow to Russia's economic interests, proceeds only from the interests of irresponsible politicians willing to burn all the air bridges between us. It is difficult to say how soon the rampant Russophobia of our yesterday's partners will die down. After all, it is the air passengers who suffer and who will have to comply with the reckless decisions of politicians by draining their purses. By the way, Russians have already felt this by paying exorbitant amounts of money for flights to traditional vacation destinations.
Surprisingly, ICAO has so far pretended that nothing extraordinary is happening in the segment of international air travel. There has been no reaction to the recklessness of the Western authorities in destroying the well-established system of international cooperation in the sector of civil aviation. Any limitation of flights by aircraft involves not only incalculable financial but also technological losses that are especially painful for Europe, which is so enthusiastic about sanctions. These include revision of air flows, changes in the aircraft fleet, disruption of international schedules, disruption of air traffic, etc.
So simply, without thinking about the consequences, the West abandoned the agreements adopted with the USSR in the late 1980s in order to ease the heat of the Cold War. It is worth remarking that opening of Trans-Siberian, Trans-Polar and Trans-Asian routes through our territory was one more “goodwill gesture” of Soviet President Michail Gorbachev. But who remembers this gift in the West that has fallen into a sanctions frenzy?