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What would happen if Russia closed its airspace to Western airlines?

A passenger plane comes in to land over a field near Heathrow Airport on Aug. 11 in London. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

With new European Union sanctions looming over Russia, the country has announced that it considered blocking international flights through its airspace. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev referred to Western airlines in general, but in reality such restrictions would mainly hit European airlines which offer direct flights to Asia. The necessity to "bypass our airspace ... could drive many struggling airlines into bankruptcy," Medvedev was quoted as saying Monday in the Russian business newspaper Vedomosti.

But is that likely to happen, given what we know about the significance of Russia's airspace?

Banning Western airlines could indeed pose a serious problem to them, given the fact that Russia is the world's largest country in terms of land mass and is between East Asia and Europe. However, such sanctions could also have a backlash on Russia. Here are three main aspects we should keep in mind:

Russia's airspace is frequently used by European airlines

Medvedev did not specify whether "Western airlines" also incorporated the ones of Western allies such as South Korea. If we assume that potential sanctions were quite limited and only affected European airlines, we can distinguish which flights would be impacted. A visual analysis of all planes over European and particularly Russian airspace compared to all planes operated by the 60 largest European airlines on Monday 2 p.m. shows that the amount of planes seems manageable, at least at first glimpse.

However, data provided to WorldViews by for Sept. 1 show that European and U.S. airlines actually account for the majority of foreign flights operated over Russia. The airlines that would most likely be affected by sanctions are highlighted in red:

So, we can be quite sure that European and U.S. airlines would indeed be affected — but to what extent?

There are alternatives for the Europeans

Let's go back to Medvedev's original quote predicting the demise and bankruptcy of some Western airlines if Russia banned them from its airspace. The most important airlines that show up in the visualization above are predominantly major enterprises with operations all over the world that seem stable at the moment.

Furthermore, this is not the first time Russia has threatened some of those airlines to deny them the right to fly over its territory. In 2007, it banned Lufthansa's cargo unit from its airspace, in an apparent attempt to pressure the airline to move its hub to Siberia. Instead, Lufthansa diverted its flights to Kazakhstan but finally gave up and relocated to Siberia.

"Diverting flights over the North Pole or southern alternatives is actually something Europeans have experience in. Not too long ago, Russia forced all planes flying over the country to land in Moscow. Many foreign airlines reacted by choosing the about 20 percent longer routes in the north or south that avoid Russian airspace," explains Hansjochen Ehmer, a professor of aviation management who specializes in competition among international airlines.

Russia would be punishing itself

If Russia banned Western airlines, it would also face direct economic consequences. So far, Russia earns so-called "royalty payments," which are comparable to taxes imposed on foreign airlines that want to fly over the country's airspace. Although these payments are significant for the airlines, it's still cheaper to pay them than divert flights away from Russian airspace. If European airlines were forced to change their routes, Russia would lose the royalty revenues. In other words: If Russia imposed sanctions on Western airlines, it would actually impose sanctions on itself, as well.