The Ukrainian invasion has really shaken things up for commercial aviation. Since the war began this time last month, there have been mass airspace closures, huge price hikes on jet fuel, and the seizure of over 500 leased planes. Even countries without a political stance on the war have been facing problems. Travel Radar caught up with some of the airlines affected to find out what’s been going on.

Airspace closures

The most noticeable effect the conflict has had on air travel is through airspace closures. Ukraine and Moldova were the first to close their skies on 24 February, the day that war broke out. Shortly afterwards, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency issued a notice recommending airlines avoid the surrounding areas where missiles might be flying. This included parts of the Russian and Belarussian border. Flight tracker screenshots could be seen circulating online depicting the dead spot over eastern Europe and a huge bottleneck over the Middle East where the planes had diverted.

flight radar screenshot of Ukrainian airspace closure
A flight radar screenshot showing the empty airspace over Ukraine | © Flightradar24

The situation only got more complicated from there. During the first week of conflict, European countries were quick to impose sanctions on the invading state by closing their airspaces to Russian aircraft. Within a fortnight, almost all of Europe (besides Serbia and Belarus) had introduced flight bans, with the US and Canada following suit. In response, Russia banned nearly 40 countries from flying through her airspace, forcing airlines to take lengthy diversions. This had a significant impact on international travel.

Map showing overflight changes in Europe due to ukraine
This map shows the change in flights over European countries | © EUROCONTROL

Closure of the Russian flight corridor was most damaging to Europe-Asia and Asia-North America routes, and especially to those countries directly bordering Russia. Many airlines were forced to suspend their routes whilst they calculated diverted flight paths. Finnish national carrier Finnair was one of the worst hit, cancelling all flights to Japan, Korea, China and Russia as a result of the ban. These locations were a cornerstone of their strategy, and following their suspension, Finnair stocks dropped 21%. The airline has since reopened some of the routes and is in the process of revising its 2022 schedule, but a reduced workload means it will have to furlough some of its crew.

Infographic showing flight diversions due to Russian airspace closures
Infographic showing flight diversions caused as a result of Russian airspace closure | © Bloomberg

Some of the countries not blacklisted by Russia still chose to avoid the airspace over safety concerns. Both Japanese Airlines (JAL) and ANA announced early on that they would be taking alternative routes to Europe, even though Japanese planes are permitted to fly in Russia. When Travel Radar reached out to JAL, they said:

We had initially planned flights between Tokyo and Frankfurt, Brussels, London, and Paris before the current situation evolved, however, currently we are operating the Tokyo – Frankfurt and Tokyo – Brussels routes, and have cancelled the London/Paris flights through end of March, with decisions on/after April to come later.

Adding that less than half of the 65 flights scheduled for this week are still going ahead. But perhaps they were wise to pull out early. For a while, Korean air persisted in flying to the embargoed state but recently relented after facing “operational challenges”. The airline spoke to Reuters about an incident earlier this month:

“We were informed by a Russia-based refueling [sic] service provider this afternoon that we can no longer refuel our planes at the airport in Moscow,”

And they suggested that refuelling firms might be having difficulty sourcing jet fuel due to sanctions against Russia. Now the airline has cancelled their flights to and through Russia, choosing alternative routes where possible. But Korean air is not the only airline to encounter fuel issues during the conflict.

The Jet Fuel Crisis

The war in Ukraine has even affected domestic flights operating on the other side of the globe due to rising fuel costs. Western sanctions against Russia, a major oil supplier, have sent global oil prices skyrocketing. As a result, airlines are being forced to make difficult decisions to help them absorb the cost. Some airlines are increasing airfares, whilst others are cutting their less lucrative routes.

Jet fuel prices have risen by over 35% this month, with the spot market price peaking at 185% of pre-war levels. Usually, fuel only accounts for 15-20% of flight costs, but the increased prices are putting a strain on airlines’ budgets, and the cost is being passed on to the consumer. Fuel scarcity has been a problem for a while now, with fuel prices having risen by 75% in the past year, but the war has exacerbated issues.

man refuelling plane wing
Airlines are having to decide how to respond to the increasing price of fuel | © Fabian Bimmer
Airlines in North America have opted to cut their less profitable regional routes to help absorb fuel costs. Alaska and allegiant are each reducing their second-quarter capacity by 5-10%, and JetBlue will be reducing their May capacity by 6-8%. United are also suspending some routes, stating:
“In response to several macroeconomic factors including rising fuel prices as well as expected aircraft delivery delays, the company has reduced its total capacity plan for the full year 2022 to be down in the high single digits versus full year 2019”

Australian carriers have reacted differently, with ticket prices rising to reflect flight diversions and fuel costs. Pre-pandemic, a flight from Perth to Sydney would’ve cost $407 on average. This year that average has shot up to $862. Likewise, Melbourne-Perth airfares have increased from $368 to $611. Should fuel prices rise further, Qantas boss Alan Joyce says the cost will have to be passed on to customers:

“Unfortunately, if [oil prices] stay at these levels airfares are going to have to go up, and we’re going to have to pass them on,”
“If it moves even further – so for every $US4 for a barrel of oil – it’s another per cent that airfares will have to improve by.”
The rise in airfares is also to help the airlines recover from pandemic losses. Joyce also commented that increased post-Covid demand could help offset costs, stating:
“I will say one other thing on this, is that a lot of it depends on demand. Demand is actually, at the moment, ahead of supply,”
“So what we’re seeing on London, on the US – which is half of our international operation – we’re seeing bigger demand than we can supply at the moment.
Surprisingly, it seems increased airfares, longer flights, and the dangers of international conflict have not affected travellers’ desire to fly.

How has traveller behaviour changed?

Though passenger numbers have fluctuated, most airlines that we spoke to have reported no change in demand since the war. Data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) economics report shows that there was a slump in flights to Europe starting a couple of weeks before the invasion. From 15-20 February, ticket sales from the US to Europe (Russia excluded) fell by 27% compared to the same period in 2019, falling to 35% below 2019 levels for the first week of March. But since then, ticket sales have started increasing again.

graph of US-Europe ticket sales (excluding Russia)
IATA graph showing ticket sales between the US and Europe. As you can see, the recent crisis has had a negligible impact in comparison to the travel sanctions imposed during the pandemic | © IATA economics reports 18 March 2022

Understandably, flights from countries around Ukraine have seen a surge as people flee the warzone. The IATA notes that flights to countries with large expatriate populations in Ukraine have increased, such as India, Nigeria, Georgia and Morocco. India, in particular, has made a solid effort to remove its large student population from the area in a mass airlift dubbed “project Ganga“. Some airlines, such as Wizz Air, have even offered free repatriation flights for refugees.

Overall, Global ticket sales dropped by 5% due to the conflict and have quickly started to bounce back. To put it in context, the effect has been significantly less impactful than the outbreak of the omicron variant. We can conclude that the war has not affected travellers’ trust in aviation, even if it has affected routes and ticket prices.

Do you think Russia’s invasion will have long term effects on aviation? Let us know in the comments below!

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