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United’s Scott Kirby urges ban on U.S. flights transiting Russian airspace

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby argued for a ban on Russian overflight for all carriers that operate to the U.S., primarily for safety reasons, he told reporters at a brief media availability at the International Air Transport Association’s Annual General Meeting in Istanbul today.

Airlines that fly over Russia would have to use airports in the country in the event of an emergency or a medical diversion. “What happens if prominent U.S. citizens are on board one of those flights?” Kirby said. The potential for an international crisis or conflict would be almost unavoidable in such a situation, he said.  “We should solve for this before a crisis happens.”

Related: The airlines that win and lose with Russian airspace closed

The closure of Russian airspace to U.S. carriers in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine last year has materially affected United’s business, Kirby said. Before the pandemic, United operated five daily flights between the U.S. and India. 

Now, the carrier operates just one — Newark to Delhi — because the closure of Russian airspace rendered the other four routes, including San Francisco to Delhi, unviable. “It’s a big issue for us,” he said. Access to Russian airspace isn’t without its competitive dynamics for United, too. Carriers in the Middle East and China, in particular, have an advantage over their U.S. counterparts with the quicker route to North America.

United is limited to four weekly flights to China due to Covid-era government restrictions that remain in place. “Before the pandemic, United Airlines alone took a thousand U.S. citizens to China every day, and a thousand Chinese citizens to the U.S.,” Kirby said, adding that the carrier transported 100 Russian citizens to the U.S. daily then. “One of the underappreciated costs of Covid was the loss of global connectivity,” Kirby said. “The world has become a more dangerous place, because we’re not connected anymore.”

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