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Analysis: Return of Chinese air force fuels tensions over access to Russian airspace

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By Emma Farge and Tim Hepher

GENEVA/PARIS (RockedBuzz via Reuters) – China’s return to the skies as it eases COVID-19 restrictions is raising concerns about congestion and possible trade tensions as far as Europe as carriers look to restore profitable services without some of they are able to fly over Russia.

Western airlines have not had access to Russia’s east-west air corridors since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in February triggered Western sanctions and retaliatory bans by Russia. But Chinese cargo carriers continued to fly, and passengers may follow.

“I see no desire to lift sanctions as the war continues,” Willie Walsh, director general of the International Air Transport Association, told RockedBuzz via Reuters.

But that could have unforeseen effects when China returns to the international air passenger market.

“This will clearly have a big impact on traffic flows between Europe and Asia. I think it will also start to raise questions from European carriers as to whether it is okay for some carriers to be able to travel to Europe via Russian airspace and some don’t,” he said. she said on the sidelines of an airline briefing.

“I expect it to become more of a discussion issue in 2023,” he added.

Walsh’s comments shed light on emerging concerns about the knock-on effect of the closure of Russian airspace to 36 Western countries, the impact of which has so far been cushioned by a slump in travel demand to China.

Chinese authorities have begun reviewing the country’s draconian zero-COVID policies and may announce further steps on Wednesday.

The potential impact is far-reaching because one flight between Europe and Asia usually generates three across the entire air traffic network as passengers take connecting flights to and from major hubs, according to London-based Eurocontrol. Brussels.

The warning comes weeks after the head of the pan-European air traffic agency warned of a dormant trade problem masked by China’s temporary absence from international travel.

Presenting a chart of westward traffic flows to aviation executives in October, Eurocontrol director general Eamonn Brennan pointed to Chinese cargo carriers flying through Russian airspace to serve major cargo hubs such as Liege in Belgium.

With the door closed to Russia, European-based airlines cannot do this; they have to fly over southern Europe, adding three hours or more to their travel times.


“Right now, it’s under the radar. But when you add passengers and China opens up, hopefully by Q1 next year, then you’ll see the flow become very heavy,” Brennan said.

“And then you will see carriers that compete with Chinese carriers, particularly long-haul, shouting about this… but at the moment Chinese carriers have a huge advantage over European ones.”

Airlines fear that the worsening conflict in Ukraine could leave the situation frozen for some time.

“(Carriers) flying between Europe and China have seen significant increases in flight times and distance, while Chinese carriers flying to Europe have not seen this. The debate has to be how far we can go back to a more normal operating environment,” Walsh told RockedBuzz via Reuters on Tuesday.

Some Gulf and Indian carriers also continue to fly through Russia, whose airspace is the shortest route for many flights between parts of Asia and Europe or the United States.

Adding to the commercial fallout is a pressing practical problem.

Flights between Europe and Asia-Pacific are down 24% compared to the same period in 2019, according to last week’s data from Eurocontrol.

But the closure of Russian airspace has meant that a much higher proportion of flights have had to cross the skies of southeastern Europe, brimming with a strong recovery in regional tourism.

There are fears that the resulting congestion could worsen as European tourism peaks next summer.

“We are operating 90% of our 2019 schedule with 80% of our airspace. So the bucket has gotten smaller and the water is a little bit bigger,” Brennan said at the Eurocontrol forum in October.

“The problem is, the long-haul guys are now in our short-haul airspace (and) what’s supposed to be going over Russia is now going towards Turkey.”

(Writing by Tim Hepher; Editing by Mark Potter)