Russia's closed airspace impact on flight routes: Some airlines forced to take long way around

Spread over a land area of 16.4 million square kilometres, covering almost 11 per cent of the world's landmass and 11 time zones, Russia dwarfs every other country. You could fit Australia twice inside Russia and still have plenty of wriggle room.

That sheer bulk makes Russia an important player in world aviation, and right now it's giving some airlines a major headache.

In response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Europe has recently closed its airspace to Russian airlines, and Russia has reciprocated in kind, closing its airspace to European carriers. That has implications for European airlines operating Asian routes since so many great circle routes between Europe and Asia – the shortest distance between two points on the globe – pass through Russian airspace.

Based on the Great Circle Mapper from gcmap.com, great circle routes that take aircraft at least partially over Russian airspace include Frankfurt to Seoul, Tokyo to Paris, London to Singapore and Bangkok to Copenhagen.

Even the great circle route from Singapore to Munich lies partially over Russia while the same route from Singapore to New York lies substantially in Russian airspace, although the track of Singapore Airlines' flight SQ24, which operates the world's longest non-stop flight between the two cities, takes it to the east of Russia.

Qantas has also been impacted. The great circle route for Qantas' non-stop flight from Darwin to London takes it over Russia, and the airline has re-routed the service's flight path, taking the aircraft over the Middle East and southern Europe and boosting flight time by about an hour. If Russia does not reopen its airspace by mid-year, that could also affect Qantas' QF1 flight from Sydney to London via Singapore, scheduled to recommence service in June 2022.

One of the worst affected is Finnair. The Finnish national carrier is uniquely positioned to take advantage of great circle air routes that offer fast flight times between Helsinki and a number of East Asian capitals. However all those routes overfly Russia. At the beginning of March Finnair announced it was suspending its lucrative routes to Seoul, Osaka, Tokyo, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Finnair continues to operate to Bangkok, Phuket and Singapore, and from March 9 the airline plans to resume flights to Tokyo. That flight, which took around 8 ½ hours across Russian airspace, will now take about 4½ hours longer. Before Russia closed its airspace to European carriers, Finnair was operating an average of more than 10 flights through Russian airspace every day.

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Even the flight between Helsinki and Delhi has been affected. Instead of a direct route via Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and China, Finnair AY121 now flies south from Helsinki, across the eastern Mediterranean and east across the Arabian Peninsula and the Arabian Sea before landing at Delhi. Instead of a Helsinki-Delhi flight time of less than seven hours, that flight now takes more than nine hours.

Some Asian carriers excluded from Russia's ban

Some Asian carriers continue to operate over Russia. Flightradar24 shows Air China, China Southern, China Eastern, Korean Air, Eva Air, Asiana, Air India and Cathay Pacific operating in Russian airspace. Turkish Airlines is another exception, however Turkey is sensitive to its vulnerability to Russian interference, and its criticism of Russia's invasion of Ukraine has been muted. For the most part, European airlines operating flights to Asia are now flying a more southernly route over Turkey and the Black Sea, Iran, Iraq and India. Singapore Airlines' flight SQ328, from Singapore to Munich, currently flies via the Persian Gulf and Saudi Arabia, although the great circle route would take it over Russia, between the Black and Caspian seas.

Airspace closures are rare and disruptive

The entire airspace over the US and Canada was famously closed for two days in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks but apart from times of war, it's rare for countries to close their airspace, and airlines pay countries for overflying their territory.

In mid-2017, during a stoush with Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE closed their airspaces to Qatar Airways. Qatar sits about halfway up the Persian Gulf, on the eastern side of the Arabian Peninsula, most of which is occupied by Saudi Arabia. That forced Qatar Airways flights to and from Europe and to North Africa to make a long detour over Iraq, Jordan, Israel and the Mediterranean rather than the direct route over Saudi Arabia. The Saudi coalition - which had accused Qatar of state-sponsored terrorism to justify the ban – finally relented and reopened their airspace in January 2021.

Rather than airspace closure, the COVID pandemic has given the world plenty of examples of countries closing their airports to anyone coming from certain countries. Just before Christmas 2020, in response to a surge in infection rates in the UK, about 40 countries banned flights coming from the UK. The list included Canada, India, France, Spain, Ireland, Denmark and the Republic of Ireland. And right here, it was not until March 3, 2022, that Western Australia finally opened its doors to welcome travellers coming from eastern states - after being closed for 697 days.