Banned From Russian Airspace, U.S. Airlines Look to Restrict Competitors

WASHINGTON — Unable to fly through Russian airspace because of the war in Ukraine, US airlines are stepping up a lobbying campaign on Capitol Hill and the White House to address what they say is a growing problem: they are losing business to foreign competitors who can carry passengers between the United States and Asia more quickly and cheaply.

Effectively banned from time- and fuel-saving polar routes between the United States and a variety of destinations on the other side of the world, American carriers say they are being forced to adopt an aeronautical version of Twister to get passengers where they want to go. go without taking undue risks.

They have modified trans-Pacific flight plans to ensure they have somewhere to land in an emergency, have reduced passenger and cargo loads to keep costs down as they fly longer distances, and have suspended more than a dozen new routes. planned to Mumbai, Tokyo. , Seoul and other cities.

On its route from New Delhi to New York City, American Airlines was forced to stop flights in Bangor, Maine, an hour and a half before the mark, on 19 occasions, a person familiar with the recent history said. Those stops, which were typically caused by unfavorable winds or weather that depleted jet fuel supplies and drained flight crew work hours, delayed passengers and forced 14 pilots and flight attendants to change.

Those flights were already operating with dozens of seats deliberately empty, the person added, because less weight was required on board so the fuel would last as long as possible.

Yet many foreign airlines are not banned from flying over Russia, US airlines and their lobbyists say, and are gaining more passengers on routes to and from the United States as a result. Continued access to the shortest and most fuel-efficient routes Russian airspace offers is giving airlines such as Air India, Emirates and China Eastern Airlines an unfair advantage, industry lobby group Airlines for America said in a recent performance on Capitol Hill.

Airlines for America estimated the lost annual market share of US airlines at a collective $2 billion per year.

“Foreign airlines using Russian airspace on flights to and from the US are gaining a significant competitive advantage over US carriers in major markets, including China and India,” the filing, dated February, said. “This situation directly benefits foreign airlines and at the expense of the United States as a whole, with fewer connections to key markets, fewer high-paying airline jobs” and a dent in the broader economy.

US airlines for years had access to Russian airspace through a series of deals with Moscow. In exchange for that access, they, and other foreign airlines, paid fees to the Russian government for air traffic control support that ran into hundreds of millions of dollars a year, according to an airline official and industry advocate.

But after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year prompted government officials in the United States, Britain, Canada and Europe to ban Russian planes from flying over their airspace, Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin immediately banned The United States and other supporters of Ukraine, including Canada and much of Europe, to take to the skies.

Now the airlines are lobbying the White House and Congress to fix the problem by subjecting foreign airlines from countries not yet banned from Russian airspace to the same restrictions applied to US airlines, effectively forcing them to fly the same routes as its US competitors.

The Biden administration should “take steps to ensure that foreign airlines flying over Russia do not depart from, land in, or transit through airports in the United States,” said Marli Collier, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America.

The proposal appears to have gained traction with the Transportation Department, which recently drafted an order that would ban Chinese carriers carrying passengers to the United States from flying through Russian airspace, according to three people briefed on the order. The order was presented to a group of Biden administration officials, including members of the national security team, on Monday, two of those people said, and has been under consideration this week along with other proposed policy measures.

Department of Transportation officials declined to comment. But national security officials are mindful of the potential diplomatic consequences of moves targeting a longtime ally like India, or adding further strain to an already tense relationship with China.

A spokesman for the State Department, which is involved in an interagency government review of airspace issues, said the department was aware of the concerns and considers the safety of US citizens on foreign soil a top priority.

“It’s unfortunate for our airlines that this has been a side issue,” said Manisha Singh, a former deputy secretary in the State Department’s office for economic and trade affairs who now runs a consulting firm in Washington. “I think we should do everything we can,” she added, noting that the United States should “be careful” before taking actions that could offend foreign countries and, as a result, affect US tourism and trade.

Representatives for Delta, American and United Airlines, the national carriers most involved in the lobbying effort, referred questions to Airlines for America, which praised a recent letter from members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Transportation Secretary Pete. Buttigieg echoing the group’s talking points.

“When foreign airlines fly over Russian territory, even if they do not expect to land on Russian soil, they risk unplanned diversions in Russia for safety, medical, mechanical or more dire reasons,” Sen. Bob Menendez, D-NJ, wrote. . , chair of the panel, and Senator Jim Risch of Idaho, its top Republican. The Departments of State and Transportation have not yet responded to the letter, according to someone who has been briefed on the exchange.

Representatives for Air India declined to comment, and representatives for Emirates and China Eastern did not respond to requests for comment.

Arjun Garg, former lead counsel and acting deputy administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, said the Biden administration has the legal authority to remedy complaints by US airlines.

Mr. Garg said that both the safety concerns that airlines have flagged and the way in which current regulations have put them at a disadvantage are serious dilemmas.

“Foreign airlines get the benefit of shorter flight times, lower costs, less fuel consumption, all those kinds of advantages that are closed to US airlines by order of the US government,” Garg said.

At a time when American travelers are already fed up with fundamental problems like crowded seats, flight cancellations and a cascade of service fees, access to Russian airspace may not be the most pressing concern. Depending on winds, air traffic, and other factors on any given day, on a 14-hour flight, avoiding Russian airspace can mean less than an additional hour of flight time in some cases. But it can also mean more than two hours.

But the cost differential is remarkable. As of Wednesday, the one-way leg of an April roundtrip from New York’s Kennedy Airport to New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Airport cost around $1,500 and was estimated to take 13 hours and 40 minutes on Air India, according to Travelocity. Most comparable flight on a US airline: a $1,740 American Airlines trip with an estimated flight time of 14 hours and 55 minutes.

But Airlines for America and the major carriers it represents are also highlighting safety concerns for Americans flying over Russia, including on foreign carriers. And history suggests that there are reasons for anxiety.

In 2014, a Malaysia Airlines flight was shot down over Ukraine, killing 298 people. A Dutch court subsequently convicted, in absentia, two Russian separatists and a pro-Russian Ukrainian of murder.

In 2021, a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania was diverted to Belarus, a close Kremlin ally, after Belarusian officials alerted air traffic controllers to a suspected bomb threat on the plane. His true purpose US prosecutors said, was to arrest a dissident journalist who was a passenger for inventing a false security issue. (The journalist, Roman Protasevich, was recently tried in Belarus, and the officials the Justice Department says organized the diversion have been indicted in the United States and charged with conspiracy to commit air piracy.)

Last year, American basketball star Brittney Griner was detained at an airport near Moscow and later sentenced to nine years in a penal colony for carrying hashish oil vape cartridges in her luggage. She was released in December.

There are also operational challenges stemming from the longer routes that US airlines fly.

Delta Air Lines has redraw maps of trans-Pacific flights repeatedly to comply with US regulations and Russia’s overflight ban, according to internal documents and two people familiar with the changes.

FAA rules require that for long flights, commercial aircraft must always be within 180 minutes of a suitable airport in case an emergency landing is needed (with certain aircraft, which Delta flies, it can be extended to 207 minutes). ).

But without access to Russia as an emergency stopover, Delta’s Detroit-Shanghai flights are now forced to fly near obscure Pacific landmasses like Shemya Island in southwest Alaska. And if the small Shemya airport is too crowded to handle an emergency landing, Delta pilots must divert to an even farther airport like Midway Atoll in the mid-Pacific, these people said, adding up to an hour and 40 minutes. and more than 3,000 gallons of fuel per trip when the closest stops are not available.

“Sometimes you can think of it as a little obstacle course,” said Jim Higgins, an aviation professor at the University of North Dakota who flew as a commercial pilot for seven years. Federal regulation around emergency landings, while well-intentioned, he added, “increases operational complexity.”

Hari Kumar contributed reporting from New Delhi, and keith bradsher from Beijing li you contributed research.