Wednesday, March 02, 2022

Advantage Air India? Airspace bans on Russian flights could give the Indian carrier an edge

On February 24, the world woke up to news of Russian forces invading Ukraine. For the past couple of years, Russia has been at the receiving end of international sanctions for a multitude of reasons, but on that day the events took a very different turn. As the world debated how to contain Russia and the United Nations got into action, another angle was being played out –on the civil aviation front.

Country after country decided to ban aircraft operated by Russian airlines, carriers linked to Russia and registered in Russia from their airspace. What started with countries like Poland, Greece and the Baltic nations quickly escalated with most European countries banning Russian aircraft. Canada and the United States joined in quickly.

The action was reciprocated by Russia and that has led to a stalemate wherein Russia is cut off from most of Europe and vice versa. Air links have been severed between Russia and North America.

There was another casualty as well -- flights overflying Russia en route to other destinations. With the scale and size of the country, most flights from North America to Asia and Scandinavia to some parts of Asia overfly Russia. In an immediate response, Finnair cancelled its flights to Japan, Thailand and China and United Airlines pulled out of the San Francisco-Delhi and Newark-Mumbai routes.

Air India, which was privatised with its ownership transferred to Tata Sons in January, continues to overfly Russia for flights to the United States as well as Canada. On the India-to-Canada route, Air India continues to fly non-stop while Air Canada introduced a stop in Dublin to uplift fuel and effect a possible crew change as flying hours increase. Likewise, while United Airlines cancelled certain sectors, some could see a tech stop - similar to American Airlines, which never got an overflight permit from Russia after starting flights to New Delhi.

Air India's competitors like American and Air Canada are forced to stop somewhere enroute -- Air Canada in Dublin, American in Bangor -- while the Indian airline continues to fly on the shortest route (over Russia). That puts Air India in a unique position and one which it can capitalise on.

It is unclear how long the current conflict will last. What is also unclear is that as and when the conflict ends with or without a significant change in borders, when will the countries lift sanctions on the use of air space? In the past, be it the case between Qatar and its neighbours or between India and Pakistan, airspace closures have lasted for a very long time. This could mean that the cancellations which European and North American airlines have announced for a few days or weeks could be in force longer. With oil prices at record highs, longer flight times and additional landings are not something airlines look forward to.

Couple that with the possibility of missed connections due to the changes in flight times and airline operations go for a toss. Finnair, for example, had been crowing out about it offering the fastest flights between Asia and North America, on the back of access to Russian airspace, which is not the case any more.

With non-stop options being limited, passengers will have to turn to one-stops and Air India could well be the winner. Pre-pandemic, the airline operated flights to Vienna, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Milan, Rome, Madrid, Frankfurt, Paris, London and Birmingham. Airlines in the EU have pulled out flights to Japan, China and South-East Asia. Air India operates to all these places! It has a sizeable presence in South-East Asia and operates flights to both Japan and China, which may need schedule tweaks for better connections.

The airline already has an effective hub in New Delhi and may need some additional support from the airport operator, which would be easy to come by.

02/03/22 Ameya Joshi/Moneycontrol

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