Getty Images / Greg Bajor

What If Moscow Cancels Airline Overflight Rights?

The interconnected world gives Russia tools that the Soviet Union never had.

The world is watching Russia, worrying that it might invade Ukraine or launch military assaults against NATO member states. But Moscow may, true to form, decide to do something completely different. And to throw the West into turmoil, the Kremlin would only need to take one simple administrative measure: suspend Western airlines’ overflight rights. Airlines are rightly alarmed at the prospect, and the rest of us should accept that the globalized economy makes our countries vulnerable. It’s not your parents’ Cold War anymore.

Say you’re flying from London to Beijing. Your plane takes you eastwards, across the North Sea, above Denmark, Sweden, the Baltic Sea, a stretch through Finnish airspace—and then follows a very long stretch through Russian airspace followed by a brief one in the skies above Mongolia and one in China. When the plane touches down, you and your fellow passengers have spent more than ten hours in the air.

Without a sojourn through Russian airspace the flight would be far riskier, as it would have to traverse the airspace of countries like Syria. Unsurprisingly, few Western airlines today dare fly through Syrian airspace; the same is true for parts of Iraq, which a London-Beijing flight would also traverse on a Middle Eastern route. Other alternatives would add more flying time. The Russian route is safe and dependable.

That’s why lots of airlines choose it for various long-distance flights. In 2019—just before COVID slashed global air traffic—more than 300,000 flights travelled through Russian airspace. Tens of millions of travelers benefit, as do the recipients of enormous volumes of cargo. Air travel from Europe and the U.S. East Coast to Asia and vice versa wasn’t always this easy. During the Cold War, Soviet air space was closed to Western airlines, which instead had to make stopovers at Anchorage International Airport. (The Alaskan city proudly billed itself “crossroads of the world”.)

Last October, as the confrontation between Russia and the West was accelerating, Russia agreed to issue additional overflight rights for American airlines. Getting them hadn’t been easy; indeed, the airlines had asked the State Department to intervene with Russian authorities on their behalf. “Russian overflights are key to maintaining and expanding U.S. airlines’ global network,” the airlines’ trade association explained later. Without these rights, the association wrote to State, inefficient routing would cause “time penalties, technical stops, excess CO2 emissions, and loss of historic slot rights.” 

Longer routes resulting in longer flights, stopovers for refueling, and loss of historic slot rights: this is precisely what would happen if Russia were to revoke Western airlines’ overflight rights. Imagine hundreds of thousands of flights every year forced to fly longer routes, which would result in even longer travel times as some longer routes would have to include stopovers. Sure, today’s planes can fly longer than their Cold War predecessors and can thus traverse continents without stopovers: Singapore Airlines’ flights from Singapore to New York clock in at nearly 19 hours. Most passengers, though, would find such air marathons unbearable.

Airlines, already brought to the brink by COVID, would hemorrhage money, and chaos would ensue as they tried to assemble viable new routes. “It’s not just about the additional fuel cost of a longer route flight time,” said Simon Knechtli, managing director for Aerospace at the insurance broker WTW. “There’s also interruption to return flights in cases when you can’t make an immediate turn-around. This means you may incur parking charges at the airport.”

An aircraft parked for a day is lost income, and lots of waiting planes also create backlogs. “If the route through Russia was blocked, it would introduce time and cost penalties that in some cases might make routes unviable, and the same goes for U.S. carriers,” a senior executive at a European airline told me. These days, Anchorage is busy receiving lots of national flights and would struggle to accommodate an influx of international stopovers. If Russia wanted to cause maximum instant harm, it would suspend overflight rights just ahead of the Beijing Olympics, which begin on Feb. 4.

So far, Moscow hasn’t threatened to revoke overflight rights, but knows it has a phenomenal weapon at its disposal. So, of course, do Western airlines and Western governments. Yes, banning overflights would mean forfeiting the fees airlines pay—but wreaking havoc on Western business in this manner is certainly cheaper, not to mention easier, than a military attack. Western countries—governments, business, and airline passengers—would do well to consider the consequences of an overflight ban as seriously as they consider the threat of Russian military aggression against different countries.

The wider Western alliance could, of course, retaliate by revoking overflight rights for Russian airlines – but various Western countries are simply not as important to Russian airlines as Russian airspace is to East Coast and European flights to Asia and vice versa. “You’ve read our minds!” said the European airline executive when I got in touch to ask him about the prospect. 

Indeed, Western governments might inadvertently get global aviation into a similar mess. Airline executives worry that the sanctions with which President Biden and other Western officials have vowed to punish Russia if it unleashes further harm on Ukraine could end up making it virtually impossible to pay their overflight fees. “If the West introduces tight banking and money transfer sanctions, it could make it impossible to pay Russia without falling foul of the authorities,” the airline executive said. A reminder: insurers immediately cancel the insurance of any company that does business with a sanctioned entity. Otherwise the insurer itself risks massive government fines.

Overflight rights sound like an administrative matter—but in a globalized world, they’re not. Indeed, globalization presents countries with opportunities to cause harm that the Cold War’s adversaries never had. Vladimir Putin is unlikely to engage in the sort of aviation piracy that forced a Ryanair plane to land in Minsk last May, but canceling overflight rights would not be illegal. And by now, it should be obvious that the past three decades’ ever-increasing globalization and ever-increasing convenience are not to be taken for granted. As they say in the aviation business: adopt the brace position.

Elisabeth Braw is a Senior Fellow at AEI, specializing in defense against gray-zone aggression. She previously directed the Modern Deterrence program at the Royal United Services Institute. She is the author of "The Defender's Dilemma Identifying and Deterring Gray-Zone Aggression" (AEI, 2021).