Asia is now a more difficult place to get to because of the fact that Russia, the biggest country in the world, is now limiting air travel for many European airlines. However, because of its vast size, diversions take more time and cost more money.
How are Airlines Adapting?
Airlines are coming up with innovative ways of flying to Asia. This can be illustrated best with Finnair – Finland’s national carrier and its flight from Helsinki, its capital, to Japan’s capital Tokyo.
The flight plan before the Ukraine invasion was that the airline, after taking off, would travel into neighbouring Russian airspace. It would then continue there for 3,000 miles before entering China via its northern border with Mongolia. It flew in China for a further 1,000 miles before re-entering Russia again just north of its far eastern city of Vladivostok. Finally, the flight would cross the Sea of Japan and turn south towards Narita International Airport, Tokyo.
The flight time would be about 9 hours and cover nearly 5000 miles. However, as one can see, most of the flight is over Russian territory. This means that a significant diversion is necessary in order to reach Japan another way.
It does appear however that Finnair has found a way around this by going over the North Pole. Instead of flying southeast into Russia, planes would now depart Helsinki and head north. The aircraft would head to the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard before crossing the North Pole and Alaska. It would then veer towards Japan flying over the Pacific carefully skirting Russian airspace. This journey takes over 13 hours, covers approximately 8,000 miles and uses 40% more fuel.
In addition to the polar route, Finnair can also reach Japan by flying south of Russia over the Baltics (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia), Poland, the Slovak Republic, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, China, Korea and then Japan. It does take longer but it can be used if wind conditions are particularly favourable resulting in a similar flight time.
What Happened Previously?
This type of avoiding countries, such as Russia, is not new. During the Cold War, a period of heightened tension between the West and the former Soviet Union which extended from 1945 (the end of World War 2) to 1991, flights had to be diverted around the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
During the most difficult of times, this meant flying north around Greenland to Alaska, refuelling in Anchorage (Alaska’s state capital) and then around the Bering straits to reach Japan. China-bound flights skirted the Black Sea and Caucasus region, avoiding Afghanistan and entering China through central Asia.
As one can see, because of the Soviet Union’s airspace being blocked historically, airlines are used to having to divert their planes in order to get to the far east. Now that the Soviet Union’s main successor state Russia is blocking its airspace, airlines are better prepared to deal with this difficult situation.
As time goes on it may well be that China’s airspace becomes compromised because of its traditional allegiance with Russia. China has also undergone difficulty recently with a China Eastern Airlines plane crash where there were 132 people on board.
As it currently stands, China has not prohibited flying, and airlines such as Finnair have the opportunity to fly over many of the other countries that were formally part of the Soviet Union, such as Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
In addition, Eastern Europe is mostly open apart from Ukraine and Belarus. So this means that Finnair has the opportunity to fly over those countries giving a second viable alternative flight route (as described earlier) as opposed to going via the North Pole. The options for flight operators are, at the moment, more optimistic than many airlines have faced previously. Therefore, airlines will be better able to handle these difficulties.