Just as transatlantic travel was on the verge of a resurgence, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last month has thrown the international airline industry into turmoil—raising serious questions about whether 2022 will indeed be the comeback year for global travel.
Russia’s actions immediately prompted airspace closures over the conflict zone, as well as a spike in jet fuel prices, and a drop in bookings for U.S.-Europe flights, according to preliminary data provided by travel booking site Kayak.
Individual airlines have taken actions too, such as Delta Air Lines’ suspension of its codeshare partnership with Russian flag carrier Aeroflot. Many nations, including Canada, the U.S., and much of Western Europe, have banned all Russian-operated flights from their airspace and airports. Russia retaliated by blocking some 36 airlines (namely European carriers) from flying over its territory—a move that could severely impact flights to Asia by requiring lengthy detours.
Is it safe to fly to Europe right now?
Given the rapidly changing picture, some travelers might be questioning whether it’s safe to fly across the pond at all, even if their destination is far from the conflict zone. For some observers, it’s bringing back memories of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which in 2014 was downed by a Russian-made surface-to-air missile over Ukraine on a flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. All 298 people on board the 777 were killed, leading safety experts to call for tougher restrictions on commercial airliners flying near conflict zones.
“They’ve put new safeguards in place,” says aviation safety expert John Goglia, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board, adding that travelers should be reassured that “the airspace over Ukraine is totally closed off.”
“It is safe to fly” within Europe, he says.
The U.S. State Department on February 28 issued a Level 4 “Do not travel” advisory for Russia “due to the unprovoked and unjustified attack by Russian military forces in Ukraine,” citing “the potential for harassment against U.S. citizens by Russian government security officials, the embassy’s limited ability to assist U.S. citizens in Russia, COVID-19 and related entry restrictions, terrorism, limited flights into and out of Russia, and the arbitrary enforcement of local law.”
The State Department urges U.S. citizens to depart Russia immediately via any commercial air options that might still be available, given that a growing number of airlines are canceling flights into and out of Russia.
International airlines say that the rerouting of flights and airspace restrictions are precisely what’s needed to keep aircraft and passengers safe. For example, British Airways confirmed it had suspended all flights to Moscow and also the use of Russian airspace; it’s also giving full refunds to customers “who are inconvenienced” by the cancellations. The airline added in a statement to AFAR that “this is clearly a matter beyond our control.”
At the very least, the rerouting of some services could lead to longer flight times, and that, plus a sharp rise in the price in jet fuel due to the cutoff of supplies from the region, could also push up airfares.
What effect could the conflict have on the demand for and cost of Europe flights?
A number of factors will affect Europe air travel in 2022 and not all of them are negative, says Scott Keyes, founder and chief flight expert at Scott’s Cheap Flights. One is that there’s been a major rebound in international flight capacity—while the number of transatlantic flights in summer 2021 was still significantly lower than before the pandemic, “many routes will be fully recovered if not higher [in number] this summer,” he says.
But, he adds, “The big wild card is how the invasion will impact travel demand, especially to Europe.” Keyes notes that there is some early evidence of an initial dip in international travel enthusiasm.
Up until last week, however, the demand for travel overall has remained high, with weekly ticket sales just below or at 2019 levels. International travel, in particular, has been benefiting from pent-up demand: A recent survey of Scott’s Cheap Flights members showed that 75 percent were planning to take more trips abroad in 2022 than last year, Keyes says. Among the inducements is a recent rash of transatlantic fare sales, with peak season prices from U.S. gateways as low as $498 round-trip to London or $395 to Norway.
Niche carriers like French Bee are also offering very low fares on routes to Paris from Los Angeles and San Francisco. But how these newcomers will ultimately affect Europe airfares depends on whether people feel confident enough to travel and whether COVID restrictions continue to ease, says Henry Harteveldt, cofounder and travel analyst at Atmosphere Research. “Yes, these [new] airlines will compete on price, but they’ll face a helluva fight,” he says.
But given that Play is connecting through Iceland and Norse Atlantic through Oslo, plus flying to smaller U.S. airports like Stewart in Newburgh, New York, they may be less of a threat to the larger carriers like British Airways and Lufthansa, he says.
Another consideration is whether these new low-cost airlines can succeed in such a volatile market.
“There has rarely been a better opportunity to start up an airline, if you are crazy enough to do it,” Play CEO Birgir Jonsson told AFAR several weeks ago, prior to the Russian invasion. The upstart line this week launched a four-day fare sale, slashing prices by 33 percent for spring flights launching from Boston, New York (Newburgh), and Baltimore/Washington, for bookings made by March 4. What remains to be seen is whether such cost cutting can ultimately combat travelers’ concerns about the conflict.