A Lufthansa aircraft at Borispyl International Airport in Kyiv, Ukraine, in November 2021.

A Lufthansa aircraft at Borispyl International Airport in Kyiv, Ukraine, in November 2021. Igor Golovniov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Russia Is Choking Off Air Travel to Ukraine

Moscow doesn’t need troops and roadblocks to isolate a target country.

Even before a single unmarked truckload of Russian troops entered eastern Ukraine, Russia had begun to cut its southwestern neighbor off from the world.

On Monday, Lufthansa and Swiss Airlines suspended their flights to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, and Lufthansa suspended its flights to Odessa. Air France and SAS, too, have stopped flying to and from Kyiv. Indeed, only a small number of airlines still fly to Ukraine: spending time in its airspace is now considered quite risky. And airlines have no obligation to keep Ukraine or any other country connected to the rest of the world.

Ordinarily, travelers from Frankfurt to Kyiv don’t lack for choice. Should they wish to travel this week, however, they will have to stop over in Warsaw. LOT Polish Airlines is one of the few carriers still willing to bring passengers to the Ukrainian capital or the Black Sea city of Odessa. Kyiv’s Borispyl International Airport’s arrivals board shows a meagre collection of airlines: LOT, Ryanair, the Ukrainian carriers UIA and Wind Rose Aviation, FlexFlight, Air Serbia. Kyiv’s Sikorsky International Airport, meanwhile, is reduced to flights on Wizzair and a few domestic carriers. 

Like the Lufthansa Group (which owns Lufthansa and Swiss), most airlines have concluded that it’s simply no longer safe to fly to Kyiv or Odessa, or even to Lviv near the Polish border. A look at Flightradar24, which shows global air traffic in real time, documents Ukraine’s new isolation: while the skies above neighboring Poland, Romania and Hungary are busy, not to mention the skies above Germany and France, the Ukrainian skies are practically bare. Few airliners are even traversing the country’s airspace anymore.

The airlines’ announcements have been greeted with anger on social media (“You should suspend flights to Russia!”). Dear social-media users, kindly put yourselves in the airlines’ shoes. Airlines are not suspending flights to Ukraine as punishment; they’re suspending them because they’ve concluded that flying in the Ukrainian skies is no longer safe. They have not forgotten the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in eastern Ukraine eight years ago. They are acutely aware that war, even its paler variants, can bring harm to an airliner and its passengers, both in the air and on the ground. The potential consequences—in loss of human life, loss of money, and loss of reputation—are incalculable. 

Indeed, lots of other airlines have clearly made the same decision as Air France and the Lufthansa Group. Considering that most governments have advised their citizens to leave Ukraine, there isn’t much business for the airlines — but usually airlines keep flying even when there’s minimal demand, so as to keep their landing slots. During the worst months of COVID, most airlines flew “ghost flights” with nary a passenger onboard. Now, though, they’re completely suspending their flights to and from Kyiv and Odessa, and in some cases to and from Lviv. “We avoid Ukrainian airspace entirely and make sure that all our flights are not even close to the Ukrainian border, just to be on the safe side,” an executive with a leading European carrier told me. In an update several days ago, a leading aviation consultancy used by most international airlines advised its clients that it now considers all Ukrainian airports and all Ukrainian airspace to be high-risk. Which aviation executive would want to keep sending aircraft, crews and passengers into such a situation?

Even those who still dare may have to stop in the next few days. Insurers are getting extremely nervous about what could happen to planes in the Ukrainian skies. Earlier this month, Ukraine International Airlines lost insurance coverage for a number of its domestic flights. In addition, insurers are reducing notice time. If a larger invasion happens, they’d almost certainly withdraw all insurance coverage with 24 hours’ notice. 

And the airline shutdown is just part of a wider effort to isolate Ukraine. Russia is crippling shipping to and from its neighbor simply by making the Sea of Azov and the Ukrainian part of the Black Sea too dangerous for shipping. And investors and international money markets have already lost confidence in Ukraine. 

Although the Ukraine government has said it’s willing to give airlines financial guarantees to allow them to buy more expensive insurance, in reality it can’t do very much. Airlines don’t have an obligation to keep flying to dangerous countries, nor do shipping companies have an obligation to keep delivering cargo through risky waters. Even if Russia moves its soldiers no further, it will have managed to weaken its neighbor. And it would be naïve to assume other countries keen to harm their neighbors aren’t paying close attention.