Analysis-China's aviation come-back stokes tensions over access to Russian airspace

By Emma Farge and Tim Hepher

GENEVA/PARIS (Reuters) - China's return to the skies as it eases COVID-19 restrictions is ramping up concerns about congestion and possible trade tensions as far away as Europe, as carriers seek to restore lucrative services without some of them being able to fly over Russia.

Western airlines have not had access to Russia's East-West air corridors since Moscow's February invasion of Ukraine triggered Western sanctions and retaliatory bans by Russia. But Chinese cargo carriers kept flying and passengers may follow.

"I don't see there's any appetite for removing sanctions while the war continues,” Willie Walsh, director general of the International Air Transport Association, told Reuters.

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

"That clearly will have a big impact on traffic flows between Europe and Asia. I think it will also start raising questions from European carriers as to whether it's fair that some carriers can travel to Europe through Russian airspace and others can't," he said on the sidelines of an airlines briefing.

"I expect that to become more of an issue of discussion in 2023,” he added.

Walsh's comments shed light on emerging concerns over the knock-on effect of the closure of Russian airspace to 36 Western countries, whose impact has until now been dampened by a slump in travel demand to China.

Chinese authorities have begun revising 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 throughout the air traffic network as passengers take connecting flights to and from major hubs, according to Brussels-based Eurocontrol.

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

Presenting a chart of westerly traffic flows to aviation executives in October, Eurocontrol Director General Eamonn Brennan pointed to Chinese cargo carriers flying across Russian airspace to serve major freight hubs like Liege in Belgium.

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


"At the moment, it's below the radar. But when you add passengers and China opens up, hopefully by Q1 of next year, then you will see the stream become very intense," Brennan said.

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

Airlines are worried that the deepening conflict in Ukraine could leave that situation frozen for some time.

"The (carriers) flying between Europe and China have seen significant increases in flight times and distance whereas Chinese carriers flying into Europe have not seen it. The debate needs to be at what point can we move back to a more normal operating environment," Walsh told Reuters on Tuesday.

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

Added to the trade fallout is a pressing practical problem.

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

But the closure of Russian airspace has meant a far higher proportion of flights having to cross southeast European skies overflowing with a sharp recovery in regional tourism.

There are fears the resulting congestion could get worse as European tourism peaks again next summer.

"We are operating 90% of our 2019 schedule with 80% of our airspace. So the bucket has got smaller and the water is a little bit bigger," Brennan told the Eurocontrol October forum.

"The problem is that the long-haul guys are now in our short-haul airspace (and) what should be going up and over Russia is now going towards Turkey".

(Writing by Tim Hepher; Editing by Mark Potter)