Banned From Russian Airspace, U.S. Airlines Look to Restrict Competitors7 min read
WASHINGTON — Unable to fly through Russian airspace because of the war in Ukraine, U.S. airlines are stepping up a lobbying campaign on Capitol Hill and at the White House to address what they say is a growing problem: They are losing business to foreign competitors who can take passengers between the United States and Asia faster and more cheaply.
Effectively banned from the polar routes that save time and fuel between the United States and an array of destinations on the other side of the world, U.S. carriers say they are being forced into an aeronautical version of Twister to get passengers where they want to go without taking undue risks.
They have altered trans-Pacific flight plans to ensure they would have somewhere to land in an emergency, reduced passenger and cargo loads to hold down costs as they fly longer distances, and put on hold more than a dozen planned new routes to Mumbai, Tokyo, Seoul and other cities.
On its route from New Delhi to New York City, American Airlines has been forced to stop flights in Bangor, Maine — an hour and a half short of the mark — on 19 occasions, a person familiar with the recent history said. Those stops, which were typically caused by unfavorable winds or weather that depleted the jet fuel supply and ran out the flight crew’s duty hours, delayed passengers and forced a swap-out of 14 pilots and flight attendants.
Those flights were already operating with dozens of the seats deliberately left unfilled, the person added, because less weight on board was required to make the fuel last as long as possible.
Yet many foreign airlines are not banned from flying over Russia, U.S. airlines and their lobbyists say — and are winning more passengers on routes to and from the United States as a result. Continued access to the shorter and more fuel-efficient routes that Russian airspace provides is giving carriers like Air India, Emirates and China Eastern Airlines an unfair advantage, the industry lobbying group Airlines for America said in a recent presentation on Capitol Hill.
Airlines for America estimated the lost annual market share of U.S. carriers at a collective $2 billion per year.
“Foreign airlines using Russian airspace on flights to and from the U.S. are gaining a significant competitive advantage over U.S. carriers in major markets, including China and India,” the presentation, dated February, said. “This situation is directly to the benefit of foreign airlines and at the expense of the United States as a whole, with fewer connections to key markets, fewer high paying airline jobs” and a dent in the overall economy.
U.S. airlines for years had access to Russian airspace through a series of agreements with Moscow. In exchange for that access, they — and other foreign airlines — paid fees to the Russian government for air traffic control support that amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars per year, according to an airline official and an industry advocate.
But after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year prompted government officials in the United States, Britain, Canada and Europe to ban Russian aircraft from flying over their airspace, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia immediately prohibited the United States and other supporters of Ukraine, including Canada and much of Europe, from flying through his skies.
Now airlines are pressing the White House and Congress to fix the problem by subjecting foreign carriers from nations not already banned from Russian airspace to the same restrictions applied to U.S. airlines, effectively forcing them to fly the same routes as their American competitors.
The Biden administration should “take action to ensure that foreign carriers overflying Russia do not depart, land or transit through U.S. airports,” said Marli Collier, an Airlines for America spokeswoman.
The proposal appears to have gained traction with the Transportation Department, which recently drafted an order that would ban Chinese carriers that fly passengers to the United States from flying through Russian airspace, according to three people who were briefed on the order. The order was presented to a group of Biden administration officials, including members of the national security team, on Monday, two of those people said, and has been under consideration this week along with other proposed policy measures.
Transportation Department officials declined to comment. But national security officials are mindful of the potential diplomatic consequences of steps aimed at a longtime ally like India, or of adding further tension to the already strained relationship with China.
A spokesperson at the State Department, which is involved in an interagency government review of the airspace issues, said the department was aware of the concerns and regards the safety of U.S. citizens on foreign soil as a top priority.
“It’s just unfortunate for our air carriers that this has been a collateral issue,” said Manisha Singh, a former assistant secretary for the bureau of economic and business affairs at the State Department who now runs a consulting firm in Washington. “I think we should do anything we can,” she added, noting that the United States should “be careful” before taking steps that might offend foreign countries and affect U.S. tourism and commerce as a result.
Representatives for Delta, American, and United Airlines, the domestic carriers most involved in the lobbying effort, referred questions to Airlines for America, which praised a recent letter by Senate Foreign Relations Committee members to Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg echoing the group’s talking points.
“When foreign airlines overfly Russian territory, even if they do not expect to land on Russian soil, they run the risk of unplanned diversions in Russia for safety, medical, mechanical or more nefarious reasons,” wrote Senator Bob Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, the panel’s chairman, and Senator Jim Risch of Idaho, its senior Republican. The State and Transportation Departments have not yet responded to the letter, according to someone who has been briefed on the exchange.
Representatives for Air India declined to comment, and representatives for Emirates and China Eastern did not respond to requests for comment.
Arjun Garg, a former chief counsel and acting deputy administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, said the Biden administration has the legal authority to remedy the complaints from U.S. carriers.
Mr. Garg said both the safety concerns the airlines have flagged and the way in which the current regulations have disadvantaged them are serious dilemmas.
“The foreign air carriers get the benefit of shorter flight times, lower costs, less fuel consumption, all those kinds of advantages that are shut off for U.S. carriers by order of the U.S. government,” Mr. Garg said.
At a time when U.S. fliers are already fed up with fundamental issues like cramped seats, flight cancellations and a cascade of service fees, access to Russian airspace may not be the most pressing worry. Depending on winds, air traffic and other factors on any given day, on a 14-hour flight, avoiding Russian airspace can mean less than an hour of extra flying time in some cases. But it can also mean more than two hours.
But the cost differential is notable. As of Wednesday, the outbound leg of an April round-trip journey from New York’s Kennedy Airport to New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Airport cost about $1,500 and was estimated at 13 hours and 40 minutes on Air India, according to Travelocity. The most comparable flight on a U.S. carrier: a $1,740 American Airlines trip with estimated flying time of 14 hours and 55 minutes.
But Airlines for America and the major carriers it represents are also highlighting security concerns for Americans who fly over Russia, even on foreign airlines. And history suggests there is cause for anxiety.
In 2014, a Malaysia Airlines flight was shot down over Ukraine, killing 298 people. A Dutch court later convicted, in absentia, two Russian separatists and a pro-Russia Ukrainian with murder.
In 2021, a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania was diverted to Belarus, a close Kremlin ally, after officials in that country alerted air traffic controllers to a supposed bomb threat on the plane. Their true purpose, U.S. prosecutors said, was to arrest a dissident journalist who was a passenger by inventing a false safety issue. (The journalist, Roman Protasevich, was recently put on trial in Belarus, and the officials who the Justice Department says organized the diversion have been indicted in the United States and charged with conspiracy to commit airline piracy.)
Last year, the American basketball star Brittney Griner was detained at an airport near Moscow and later sentenced to nine years in a penal colony for carrying vape cartridges of hashish oil in her luggage. She was freed in December.
There are also operational challenges stemming from the longer routes being flown by U.S. carriers.
Delta Air Lines has redrawn trans-Pacific flight maps repeatedly to comply with both U.S. regulations and the Russian overflight ban, according to internal documents and two people familiar with the changes.
F.A.A. rules require that for long flights, commercial planes must always be within 180 minutes of a suitable airport in case an emergency landing is needed (with certain aircraft, which Delta flies, it can stretch to 207 minutes).
But without access to Russia as an emergency stop, Delta’s Detroit-to-Shanghai flights are now being forced to fly near obscure Pacific landmasses like Shemya Island southwest of Alaska. And if the tiny Shemya airport is too full to handle an emergency landing, Delta pilots must divert to an even farther-flung airport like the one on Midway Atoll in the middle of the Pacific, these people said — adding up to an hour and 40 minutes and more than 3,000 gallons of fuel to the journey when the closer stops are not available.
“You can sometimes think of it as a little bit of an obstacle course,” said Jim Higgins, an aviation professor at the University of North Dakota who flew as a commercial pilot for seven years. Federal regulation around emergency landings, while well-intentioned, he added, “does increase the operational complexity.”
Hari Kumar contributed reporting from New Delhi, and Keith Bradsher from Beijing. Li You contributed research.
Kate Kelly and Mark Walker
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