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Russia’s war on Ukraine redrew the map of the sky — but not for Chinese airlines

<i>Roberto Finizio/Getty Images</i><br/>Virgin's Richard Branson has called for a ban on Chinese airlines flying to Europe via Russian airspace.
Getty Images
Roberto Finizio/Getty Images
Virgin's Richard Branson has called for a ban on Chinese airlines flying to Europe via Russian airspace.

By Xiaofei Xu, CNN

In the early days of the invasion of Ukraine, the European Union and Russia closed off their airspace to each other — an aerial blockade that has remained in place ever since.

Now that China has reconnected to the world after almost three years of Covid border closures — welcome news to the world’s recovering tourism markets — some in the European aviation industry are calling out what they feel is an unlevel playing field.

During a visit to China in April, French President Emanuel Macron announced that France-headquartered Airbus landed huge deals in China, as the two countries vowed to “resume airlinks to pre-pandemic levels as quickly as possible.”

However, reviving these air links could be a much simpler prospect for Chinese airlines than European.

Longer flights, more fuel

Like other passengers flying on European carriers to Asia, Macron did not take the quickest route between France and China — his plane avoided flying over Russia for both political and security reasons.

But because Beijing and Moscow are still friends, direct, quicker routes remain open over Russian airspace, requiring less fuel and bringing better profits.

“The closure of Russian airspace for European airlines has forced European carriers to take detours, involving more southern flight routes to East and Southeast Asia,” Laurent Donceel, managing director of Airlines for Europe (A4E) told CNN.

“This has resulted in longer flight times and added to the fuel used on these flights.”

The biggest airline association in Europe, A4E’s members include major players such as British Airways, Air France, KLM, Lufthansa and Finnair, all of which have had routes and flight times affected by the closure of Russian airspace.

Finnair, which operates out of a major aviation hub at Helsinki, has been hit the most due to its proximity to Russia, according to Donceel. A flight between Helsinki and Singapore now has an additional 1,400 kilometers (2,250 miles) to negotiate.

Between Helsinki and Seoul, that’s an extra 4,000 kilometers one-way.

“To put that in context, 1,400 kilometers adds 1.25 hours to the flight, and 4,000 kilometers adds seven hours on a round trip between Helsinki and Seoul,” Donceel said.

While that certainly spells more inconvenience for passengers, Donceel added that it also has commercial implications.

“This does put European airlines at a competitive disadvantage,” he said.

Ban demands

Ben Smith, CEO of the Air France-KLM Group called it an “unfair advantage” in an interview with British newspaper Financial Times published on February 17.

French Transport Minister Clément Beaune told CNN at the end of February that he has yet to receive any official complaints from Air France.

Currently China Eastern’s direct flights from Shanghai take 12 hours, while Air France, which it partners with through the SkyTeam airline alliance, takes 14 hours.

Similarly, the direct flight from Frankfurt to Beijing on German carrier Lufthansa takes 11 hours while its Chinese partner in Star Alliance, Air China, needs only nine hours.

Star Alliance declined to comment on this issue.

Some Western airlines have abandoned routes to East Asia. Virgin Atlantic put an official end to its London to Hong Kong route in March after almost 30 years of service, citing the logistical impact of the detour.

“On the basis of Russian airspace remaining closed, Heathrow — Hong Kong flight times would be approximately 60 minutes longer and Hong Kong — Heathrow flight time would be 1 hours and 50 minutes longer than prior to airspace closure,” the airline told CNN.

Founder of Virgin Group, Richard Branson expressed his support for a ban on all Chinese carriers flying to the UK via Russian airspace in an interview with British newspaper The Telegraph at the end of 2022.

He told the newspaper that airlines flying over Russia were indirectly helping the Kremlin’s war effort.

Safety implications

Russian airspace bordering Ukraine has been closed to all commercial airlines since the start of the invasion.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), in its latest conflict zone information bulletin update on March 16, also advised that airlines flying over Moscow-administered airspace should exercise caution due to “heightened military activity which may include launches of mid-range missiles penetrating into controlled airspace.”

The risk of flying in proximity to active conflict zones was brutally highlighted in 2014, when Malaysian Airline MH17 flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing 298 people.

Investigators later concluded that the missile which downed the plane was fired from a launcher belonging to Russia’s 53rd anti-aircraft missile brigade.

China’s European routes do not fly near Ukraine airspace. They primarily enter or depart Russian airspace above the Baltic Sea, near St. Petersburg.

Whether Chinese travelers — or passengers heading on the return leg from Europe — are concerned about the risks of flying through any Russian airspace remains to be seen.

CNN has reached out to the three main state-owned Chinese airlines — Air China, China Eastern and China Southern — for comments.

For now, Chinese airlines have yet to return to full pre-pandemic capacities. For instance, China Southern Airlines, with its base in the southern city of Guangzhou, will still only have one flight per week for its routes connecting Guangzhou to Paris and Frankfurt for the summer fall season of 2023, while pre-pandemic level was at one flight per day.

But as Chinese airlines gradually return to normal and the war in Ukraine continues to rage on, European airlines could potentially face more fierce challenges on routes between Europe and East or Southeast Asia, creating some interesting choices for passengers.

The-CNN-Wire
™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Oliver Briscoe contributed reporting.

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