Russia threatens Asia flight paths with possible block on Siberia airspace

Kremlin says Siberia routes could be barred as the Ukraine embargo tit-for-tat escalates from weapons to food and now the aviation industry

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 August, 2014, 9:57pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 August, 2014, 7:38am

Russia's threat to bar European and North American airlines from Siberian airspace, the latest salvo in tit-for-tat sanctions over Ukraine, is forcing carriers to consider other Asian routes.

United Airlines and Delta Air Lines, which rank second and third in the world by traffic, said they were weighing their options after Russia formally broached the idea of a Siberia ban. United Parcel Service, the biggest package-delivery company, is also making contingency plans.

The closure of Siberian airspace would escalate tensions between Russia and the United States and its allies in Europe, which have sought to punish Russian President Vladimir Putin for backing Ukraine's separatists.

North American and European passenger and airfreight operators cross eastern Russia hundreds of times a week because it is the shortest, and cheapest, path to Asia.

"These sanctions that are being threatened back and forth are very serious," said Brian Havel, associate dean for international affairs at DePaul University in Chicago.

"This is very cold-war-like in its thinking. Aviation was bound to come on to the agenda."

The comments by United, Delta and UPS signalled that airlines were reacting to the possibility of losing their fuel-saving Siberian routes.

A Russian business newspaper first raised the issue of the Siberia shutdown on Wednesday, and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev told Russia's cabinet on Thursday that a ban was "on the table".

While skirting Siberia would mean "you will burn a little more [fuel]", airlines also may be able to offset some of that expense because they would not have to pay the usual fees to overfly Russia, Delta chief executive Richard Anderson said.

European airlines would feel the brunt of a Siberia cut-off, because the region sits under routes to Asia's major cities. Air France-KLM has about 250 weekly flights traversing Siberia, and Lufthansa has about 220, according to industry data.

Among US carriers, Delta flies over Siberia between Beijing and Detroit, for example, and United traverses the region on its Beijing-Washington route, data shows.

"We're concerned that this ban will affect our ability to fly certain routes as currently planned," Christen David, a spokeswoman for United Continental said. "We are evaluating options for each route that may be affected."

A Siberian restriction would alter paths for 12 US-Asia routes for Atlanta-based Delta, spokesman Morgan Durrant said. "Delta is prepared to quickly make alternate routings around closed airspace if necessary."

American Airlines, the world's largest carrier, said some flights used Russian airspace, but declined further comment. FedEx , the world's largest cargo airline, said flights in the region were operating normally now and that it was monitoring the situation.

The Siberia threat follows sanctions imposed by the US, EU and other countries over the Ukraine crisis and the downing of a Malaysia Airlines jet. Russia was considering further steps after barring imports of foods from Europe, the US, Canada and Australia, Medvedev said. Aviation manufacturing, shipbuilding and the car industries also could be targeted.

"Aviation is a global industry with airlines around the world using overflights every day in the course of transporting people and goods," said Victoria Day, spokeswoman for Airlines for America. "It would be unfortunate if Russia made a decision that would have the unintended consequence of impacting people and economies around the world, including its own."