Updated: Mar 2
East Asia and Europe, regions with over 2.5 billion people, make up a third of the world's population. Beside significant economic activity, these regions have some of the largest, most interesting and most powerful cities in the world. There is only one country between these two regions - Russia. A country that controls air traffic between these two important regions. The overflight of Russian airspace has not been possible for a long time and thus has significantly affected the functionality of the airspace between these two important world regions.
During the Cold War, foreign airlines were not allowed to fly over the Soviet Union, which was a major obstacle to travel between Europe and a big part of Asia.
In 1950, British Airways took off at 10 a.m. at Friday from London bound for Tokyo. The trip included stops in Rome, Beirut, Bahrain, Karachi, Calcutta, Yangon, Bangkok and Manila before arriving in Tokyo. The journey lasted a 36 hours with flying over 10,000 miles. At the time, it was the fastest way to travel between these two cities.
Airlines soon began to develop another option. In the 1950s, aircraft were not able to fly directly between Europe and the west coast of the United States. Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) soon introduced a new route. From Copenhagen via Greenland and Canada to Los Angeles. Proving the safety of traveling this route, other companies soon set out to fly that route as well, but not only to LA, even further to Asia.
In the 1960s, Alaska became the new state and at that time had only 40,000 people. Anchorage was a small town that soon became important to almost everyone, especially the airport. All aircraft operating between Europe and Asia at that time had a stopover in this city.
British Airways flew three times a week from London to Tokyo with a stop in Anchorage, the journey on this route took 17 hours, which was a significant improvement compared to the previous 36 hours long journey. Today, Anchorage has only a few regional routes within the United States, and in the 1970s, Air France, SAS, KLM, Iberia, Lufthansa, Japan Airlines, Korean Air and many others flew daily to this city. The small town became connected with the whole world and developed rapidly.
With the technological development of aircraft, primarily in terms of range, companies began to operate flights between Europe and Asia without stopping in Anchorage. Finnair, for example, flew from Helsinki to Tokyo without stopping from 1983.
After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Russia began to allow foreign airlines to fly over its airspace. The Russians first had to modernize their flight control and master the English language, given that it had not been used excessively in the air force before. Once that became possible, the companies started flying directly between the two regions over Russian territory.
Given that flying over Russian territory saves airlines a lot of time and money, Russia has decided to charge for it. Although it is a business secret, one thing is for sure - airlines pay huge fees for flying over Russian territory and this is considered one of the main reasons why air ticket prices are so significantly more expensive compared to flights from Europe to the US. 133 countries signed an agreement which enabled the flights of their airspace to almost all airlines, of course, not applicable for Russia. Russia is deciding which airlines it will allow to fly over its airspace.
Russia has repeatedly used its airspace in recent and distant history in geopolitical terms, threatening to close it (entirely or for certain countries or airlines), but this has not happened. Through these manipulations, it very often achieved certain goals, for example, the reduced cost of aircraft handling at Amsterdam Airport for russian airlines.
As Russia has the exclusive right to decide which airlines are allowed to fly through its airspace, these rights are generally given by one airline in each country (e.g. Lufthansa for Germany, Air France for France, and many others). This was not a problem until recently, when low-cost airlines began running long-haul routes. The right to fly is almost never given to such airlines, and the best example is Norwegian Air, which has claimed this right several times and has been denied every time. The company is already flying to Bangkok and Singapore, but not entering Russian airspace.
The question arises how many low-cost airlines would be interested in flying through Russian airspace at all, given that these charges are high, and we know that the business of low-cost airlines is based on lower costs and cheaper ticket prices than conventional airlines.