United Airlines calls Russian airspace a ‘risk’ that others embrace

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United Airlines Holdings Inc. Chief Executive Officer Scott Kirby said flying over Russia constitutes a risk that many carriers including his own won’t take, while airlines from China or India enjoy a competitive advantage as they continue to traverse the airspace.

“I think it creates a safety and security risk,” Kirby said in Istanbul, highlighting concerns for the safety of US citizens on such flights, or the possibility of being forced to land in Russia for a variety of reasons.

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US airlines and their lobby group, Airlines for America, are pushing the Biden administration to level the playing field against Chinese rivals who can overfly Russia. As a result, flight frequencies between the world’s two biggest economies — China and the US — are stalled at below 10 percent of pre-COVID level.

Kirby said United has curtailed flights where Russian airspace is an obstacle that’s too big to divert around. The airline has not resumed Chinese services and would not be able to fly most of those routes given the distances to avoid Russian airspace, Kirby said.

“It’s a big challenge for us,” said Kirby. “Today, we are flying one flight from Newark to Delhi. The other four routes we can’t make it. They simply can’t fly far enough.”

IATA Director General Willie Walsh, speaking at the annual general meeting of the aviation lobby group, said closing an air space is a “political decision and that he would like to see Russia open up again to everyone and for the Russia-Ukraine conflict to end.”

“We want to see the aviation system return to normal,” Walsh said. “We recognize that our industry often suffers at the hand of political decisions.”

Read more: US halts sharing information with Russia on nuclear weapons

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