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Finland prepares for potential Russian airspace ban

Flights from Europe to Asia have continued uninterrupted through Russian airspace, but a possible airspace ban could also result in the EU denying Russian airlines access to Europe and North America.

Finnair's flights from Helsinki to Asia across Russian airspace. Image: Samuli Huttunen / Yle

Despite the escalating conflict, Finnair and other European airlines have maintained uninterrupted flights through Russian airspace to Asia. However, the EU is already preparing for a situation in which Russia would suddenly revoke the rights for airlines to fly over the country.

This would mean the suspension of Finnair's flights to Asia.

"As part of joint European measures, we would then consider restricting Russian flights. International legislation allows for a measure like this in situations where it is obvious that the same privileges would not be reciprocated by the state applying for a flight permit," says Jarkko Saarimäki, Director General of the Finnish Transport and Communications Agency Traficom.

For airlines, traversing Russia is the fastest and shortest connection between Europe and Asia. The alternative would be to circumnavigate the south of Russia via the Gulf, which would increase flight time by several hours and make it difficult, for Finnair in particular, to continue operating flights to Asia.

Finnair has traversed Russia during tense times

Finnair operates the majority of its flights to Asia through Russian airspace. The company also operates direct flights from Helsinki-Vantaa to St. Petersburg and Moscow.

There are currently no restrictions on Russian airspace that would affect Finnair's operations.

"In the past, there have been tensions during which Finnair has been able to operate flights safely across Siberia," says Topi Manner, CEO of Finnair.

At this time Manner will not speculate whether the situation in Ukraine could lead to the reversal of airspace rights.

Finland could block Russian flights to Cuba, US

Any Russian restrictions on the use of Siberian airspace would have a major impact on companies operating flights between Europe and Asia. In practice, most flights would have to be cancelled.

The EU has considered possible countermeasures that would prevent Russian airlines from entering EU airspace, should they decide to revoke European flight rights. Such restrictions were considered by Russia in 2014 when the EU extended economic sanctions against Russia.

Flights from Moscow across Finnish airspace. Image: Samuli Huttunen / Yle

Finland could refuse to provide air traffic control services to Russian airlines flying to Cuba and North America across Finnish airspace. Passenger flights departing from Moscow enter Finnish airspace above Lappeenranta and leave to the south of Vaasa. In practice, they only enter Finnish airspace for a short time.

Restrictions are, at this point, not considered likely, as Russia would lose several hundred million euros in revenue that it charges airlines to cross Siberia. The majority of flight charges collected by Russia are paid directly to the country's national airline Aeroflot.

According to Finntraffic, which is responsible for managing Finnish airspace, about a hundred flights are flown daily via Finland to Asia, through Russia.

Any restrictions potentially imposed by the Russians would not necessarily apply to all air traffic.

"It is possible that the flight ban in Russia would concern European airlines, but Japanese airlines could continue their flights," says Raine Luojus, CEO of Fintraffic.

Luojus calculates that if all flights through Finnish airspace were to be interrupted, it would reduce revenues collected by Finntraffic Aviation Insurance by approximately 11 million euros.