Siberia Flight-Ban Threat Forces Airlines to Evaluate Routes

Aug 08, 2014 11:16 am ET

(Updates with Europe airline response in sixth paragraph.)

Aug. 8 (Bloomberg) -- Russia’s threat to bar European and North American airlines from overflying Siberia, the latest salvo in tit-for-tat sanctions over Ukraine, is forcing carriers to consider new routes to and from Asia.

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

A closing of Siberian airspace threatens to escalate tensions between Russia and the U.S. and its allies in Europe, which have sought to punish 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’s the shortest -- and cheapest -- path to Asia.

“These sanctions that are being threatened back and forth are very serious,” said Brian F. 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 the agenda.”

The comments by United, Delta and UPS signaled that airlines are reacting to the possibility of losing their fuel- saving Siberian routes. A Russian business newspaper floated the Siberia shutdown on Aug. 5, and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev told Russia’s cabinet yesterday that a ban is “on the table.”

Lufthansa, BA

Spokesmen for Deutsche Lufthansa AG and British Airways declined to comment today about how their operations may be affected by Siberian flight restrictions.

While skirting Siberia would mean “you’ll burn a little more gas,” airlines also may be able to offset some of that expense because they wouldn’t have the usual fees paid to overfly Russia, Delta Chief Executive Officer Richard Anderson said in an Aug. 6 CNBC interview.

Closing Siberian airspace would let Putin’s government strike back at its critics by disrupting international flights that traverse the region while not cutting off global links to Moscow or western Russia.

Russian flights that cross European Union airspace outnumber European carriers’ trips over Siberia, according to Oliver Sleath, a Barclays Plc analyst in London.

Asia Routes

European airlines would feel the brunt of a Siberia cutoff, 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 data supplied to Bloomberg News by plane-tracking service Flightradar24.

Among U.S. carriers, Delta flies over Siberia between Beijing and Detroit, for example, and United traverses the region on its Beijing-Washington route, Flightradar24 data show.

“We’re concerned that this ban will affect our ability to fly certain routes as currently planned,” Christen David, a spokeswoman for Chicago-based United Continental Holdings Inc., said by e-mail. “We are evaluating options for each route that may be affected.”

United hasn’t determined the number of its flights that may be covered by such a ban, David said. Atlanta-based UPS has plans to redirect jets, said Andy McGowan, a spokesman, without providing specifics.

Delta, American

A Siberian restriction would alter paths for 12 U.S.-Asia routes for Atlanta-based Delta, Morgan Durrant, a spokesman, said by e-mail. “Delta is prepared to quickly make alternate routings around closed airspace if necessary,” he said.

American Airlines Group Inc., the world’s largest carrier, said some of its flights use Russian airspace and declined further comment. FedEx Corp., operator of the world’s largest cargo airline, said flights in the region are operating normally now and that it’s monitoring the situation in Russia.

Russia’s Siberia threat follows sanctions imposed by the U.S., European Union and other countries over the Ukraine crisis and the downing of a Malaysian Airline System Bhd. jet. Russia is considering next steps after barring imports of an array of foods from Europe, the U.S., Canada and Australia, Medvedev said. Aviation manufacturing, shipbuilding and auto industries also may be targeted, he said.

“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 Washington-based 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.”

European airlines’ dominance on trans-Siberian routes shows the importance of the overflight access. Air France-KLM, Lufthansa and Finnair Oyj account for more than half the weekly tally of trips across the region, the Flightradar24 data show.

“With that amount at stake, it could get pretty expensive and that’s just from a fuel standpoint” as airlines are forced to take longer routes around Siberian airspace, said Daniel Friedenzohn, assistant professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida.

--With assistance from Christopher Jasper in London.