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U.S. to close airspace to Russian planes, further weakening its aviation industry

The U.S. will join Canada and several European nations in limiting Russia’s access to the global aviation network

A passenger looks at a departures board at Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow on Feb. 28. (Reuters)
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The Biden administration’s decision to prohibit Russian airlines from entering American airspace will further isolate the nation, as Western governments weaken Russia’s aviation system and hinder its ability to access the portion of its fleet owned by other countries.

President Biden announced Tuesday during his State of the Union address that the United States will join Canada and several European nations in limiting Russia’s access to the global aviation network in response to the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine. Federal transportation officials said the ban would go into effect by the end of Wednesday.

“Tonight, I am announcing that we will join our allies in closing off American airspace to all Russian flights, further isolating Russia and adding an additional squeeze on their economy,” Biden said.

President Biden announced during his State of the Union address on March 1 that the United States would cut off its airspace to all Russian flights. (Video: The Washington Post)

Airlines have scrubbed more than 100 flights into and out of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport this week as restrictions come into force. The new measures announced Tuesday are part of an expansive set from Western nations that could rapidly hamstring Russia’s commercial aviation industry.

The global restrictions target Russian aviation on multiple fronts. The most immediate measures are airspace closures that severely limit where Russian national carrier Aeroflot, and private airlines from the country, can fly. Sanctions and export controls also threaten Russia’s access to spare aviation parts and the hundreds of leased aircraft that make up about half the nation’s commercial fleet.

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“Closing airspace to Russian airlines is one of the most visible actions countries can take and one of the most hard hitting,” said Henry Harteveldt, an aviation industry analyst at Atmosphere Research Group. “Lessors requiring Russians return their aircraft is definitely a severe blow to Russian airlines, as well.”

In return, Russia has closed its airspace to European airlines, all but blocking some routes to Asia for some carriers and potentially slowing the return of international travel as the airline industry tries to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

Aeroflot operates a fleet of more than 300 aircraft — mostly Boeing and Airbus jets — and serves destinations around the world. Europe and the Western Hemisphere are now nearly out of reach, and the war has disrupted some domestic routes to cities near the Ukrainian border.

Boeing announced Tuesday evening that it was suspending parts, maintenance and technical support services for Russian airlines and had “suspended major operations in Moscow.” Airbus made a similar announcement Wednesday, saying the move was “in line with international sanctions now in place.”

Britain took the first step to block Russian airlines, closing its airspace within hours of the invasion. Over the weekend, some European nations and Canada followed, and a European Union-wide ban went into effect Monday.

As a safety precaution, the Federal Aviation Administration last week had prohibited U.S. airlines from flying over Ukraine, Belarus and parts of Russia, extending restrictions over contested territory in eastern Ukraine.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said he spoke Tuesday with Ukraine’s minister of infrastructure, Oleksandr Kubrakov, and the country’s ambassador to Washington, Oksana Markarova, who requested the closure of U.S. airspace. Buttigieg, appearing Wednesday before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said “other steps” could follow, but he didn’t specify what those might be.

Airlines have, in some cases, been left looking for other routes to cross the globe as the skies become divided into blocs closed to certain nations.

Even before Biden’s announcement, Aeroflot said Monday that the closure of Canadian skies to its planes has forced it to cancel flights to cities in the United States, Mexico and the Caribbean.

An Aeroflot flight from Miami arrived in Moscow on Sunday after flying through Canadian airspace, an action Canadian authorities described as a “violation” of the ban. The next day, a Russian cargo flight from Chicago to Moscow departed while following a fishhook-shaped route that avoided northern Europe.

Even as Russian airspace remained open to U.S. airlines, many flights to East Asia were avoiding flight paths over the nation, according to records from data service Flightradar24. One exception included United Airlines flights from India, which continued to pass through Russian skies.

United said Tuesday that it would stop using that route.

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Russia’s decision to reciprocate — blocking other nations’ airlines from its airspace — has caused economic harm to some carriers. Finnish carrier Finnair said Monday that if restrictions remained, it would affect the carrier’s bottom line.

“Bypassing the Russian airspace lengthens flight times to Asia considerably and, thus, the operation of most our passenger and cargo flights to Asia is not economically sustainable or competitive” Topi Manner, the airline’s chief executive, said in a statement.

With international travel down because of the pandemic, analysts say the immediate effects will be somewhat blunted, while costing Russia revenue it would otherwise generate in overflight fees.

Michael McCormick, an assistant professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, said if the world’s airspace remains fragmented in the long term, airlines would suffer from being unable to use certain routes over the Arctic.

“Those are very efficient routes in terms of mileage and time,” he said. “The loss of those polar routes will have a significant impact on direct flights.”

American aviation businesses also face export restrictions imposed by the Biden administration. Those include provisions for exceptions to be granted for safety-critical components, but it’s not clear how that system might work. The E.U. has imposed similar restrictions.

Russia is not a major market for American aviation firms, according to an analysis by the Aerospace Industries Association. However, Russian airlines are heavily dependent on European and American technology and will struggle if they cannot access it, said Bijan Vasigh, an economics professor at Embry-Riddle.

“That is a big issue for them,” Vasigh said.

Sanctions affecting leased aircraft also could hit hard, depriving Russian airlines of much of their fleets.

The nation’s airlines have 981 jets and turboprops in service, according to figures compiled by aviation consultant Ascend by Cirium. Of those, 531 are owned by foreign companies and leased to the airlines, with Irish companies holding an outsize number. Under the European sanctions, those Irish businesses will have until late March to end their agreements in Russia.

In a statement, Dublin-based AerCap, which has 154 planes leased to Russian airlines, said it “intends to fully comply with all applicable sanctions, which will require us to cease our leasing activity with Russian airlines.”

Private companies also have severed ties with Aeroflot. Delta Air Lines ended a code-sharing partnership last week, and American Airlines said it has ended agreements with Aeroflot and S7, another Russian carrier. FedEx and UPS have suspended service to Russia.

Lori Aratani and Michael Laris contributed to this report.