Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many airlines stopped using Russian airspace, which has certainly proven to be an operational headache. Some airlines were forced to stop using Russian airspace (due to government bans), while other airlines stopped using Russian airspace out of an abundance of caution.
Along those lines, in the coming days Cathay Pacific is making a change to its policy on using Russian airspace, as reported by Danny Lee at Bloomberg.
Cathay Pacific no longer avoiding Russian airspace
As of November 1, 2022, Cathay Pacific will no longer avoid Russian airspace on its routes between eastern North America and Hong Kong.
Looking at the New York to Hong Kong route over the past several months, rather than taking the Polar route, the airline has instead flown over northern Canada, then Alaska, and then over the Pacific, just south of Russia.
This has added one to three hours to the flight time, depending on conditions, and the flight has regularly taken 17-18 hours. While the direct air distance between the cities is just over 8,000 miles, the flight has in some cases covered an actual flown distance of over 10,000 miles.
In the case of exceptionally bad winds, a technical stop has even been required in Taipei, in order to refuel and change crews.
Going forward, these flights will operate over eastern Russia. Cathay Pacific explains this is necessary due to strong headwinds and payload issues. While this will save significant amounts of money in terms of fuel burn, Russia has notoriously high ATC fees, which largely negate those savings.
It’s worth noting that while Cathay Pacific will use Russian airspace, a notice to pilots makes it clear that the flights are planned with “no dependence on any airports within Russia and none should be considered or allowed.” In other words, these flights wouldn’t divert to Russia in the event of an emergency.
According to a Cathay Pacific spokesperson:
“There are other major airlines overflying Russian airspace and there are no sanctions which prevent Cathay Pacific overflying Russia. The Polar Route provides a safe, direct and the fastest flight experience to our customers traveling from the East Coast of North America to Hong Kong.”
Should Cathay Pacific avoid Russian airspace?
For situations where airlines voluntarily choose to avoid Russian airspace, there are two elements to this — safety, and the principle and optics of the matter.
In terms of safety:
- Keep in mind many global airlines (Emirates, Qatar Airways, etc.) continue to use Russian airspace without issue, even on flights to the United States
- Politically, it wouldn’t really be in the Russian government’s interest to do anything to a Cathay Pacific plane
- Eastern Russia generally seems the lowest risk anyway, as it’s far from the conflict with Ukraine
Then there’s the principle and optics of the matter:
- The reality is that China/Hong Kong aren’t really taking much of a stand with this conflict
- While those in the US might not love the idea of flying over Russia and Cathay Pacific paying boatloads of money to use Russian airspace, that doesn’t really reflect the sentiment in China/Hong Kong, and for that matter travelers will probably appreciate the time savings
- Airlines that can use Russian airspace have a significant competitive advantage in terms of travel time, flight costs, etc.; it’s something Air India has been doing well with in recent months with service to the United States, given that US airlines have largely been forced to suspend India flights
- It’s pretty clear the current conflict isn’t going anywhere, and even if there were to be some sort of peace deal between Ukraine and Russia, I wouldn’t necessarily assume things would just go back to how they were before the conflict
As of November 2022, Cathay Pacific will resume using Russian airspace on select flights to North America. For the past several months the airline has been making massive detours to avoid Russian airspace, in many cases adding a couple of hours to the flight time, hugely driving up costs.
Now Cathay Pacific will resume flying the Polar route on these flights, which includes using eastern Russia airspace.
What do you make of Cathay Pacific resuming using Russian airspace?