American Airlines is blaming deteriorating tensions between the U.S. and Russia for a sloppy start to its new international route between New York JFK and Delhi. The carrier restarted flights to the Indian capital in November but has faced massive issues because Russia hasn’t given it permission to fly through its airspace.
The optimal routing to fly from North America to the Indian subcontinent is to go far north in order to take advantage of the Earth’s curvature which reduces the overall distance and, therefore, the flight time and the amount of fuel that is needed to operate the flight.
That route, however, involves flying through Russian airspace which requires permission from Russia’s civil aviation regulators. American Airlines decided to launch its new service to Dehli after a 10-year hiatus despite the fact that it hadn’t managed to obtain Russian overflight rights.
As a result, AA’s flights to and from Delhi are taking a lot longer than other carriers who can overfly Russia. In fact, the route back to New York JFK from Delhi is American’s longest flight with a block time approaching 17 hours.
The extended flight time (nearly four hours longer than flights that overfly Russia) has caused a series of issues for AA, including aircrew running out of flying hours and the flight being forced to divert to Canada so that a replacement crew could take over.
There was a great deal of speculation that American Airlines had simply “failed” to obtain the Russian overfly rights in time before the planned startup of the new route. One theory claimed Russia only opens overlfy applications at certain times of the year and AA’s route planners had failed to get their application in within the required window.
Another theory claimed that as AA already has Russian overfly rights for other routes, the airline simply thought it could add the new route on without an issue.
It turns out, however, that American has actually been trying to obtain Russian overfly rights for this service for months and pressed ahead with its plans for the flight because rights are routinely granted at the very last minute.
In this case, though, those rights weren’t granted as AA had been expecting and ever since, American has been working with the Department of Transporation (DOT), as well as the State Department and the White House in an effort to secure the necessary overfly rights.
So far, those efforts have proved fruitless and American remains unsure as to why. It could though be down to the deteriorating relationship between the United States and Russia, especially with tensions escalating on the Ukrainian border.
In an audio recording of an internal meeting that has been obtained by View from the Wing, Molly Wilkinson, American’s Vice President and Head of Regulatory and International Government Affairs admits that the Russian’s “have been difficult at times” and that the DOT has been working behind the scenes in an effort to get them to return calls.
Brian Znotins, Vice President of Network and Schedule Planning, however, says American will continue operating the flight even without Russian overfly rights although he remains confident the airline will eventually get the necessary rights.
“Ultimately we will get Russian overfly. It may take longer than we like. And certainly in my twenty-plus years in the business Russian overfly has never been an issue,” Znotins told the meeting.
“It always came last minute. It was something that was normal. Russian overfly would come the night before, you’d launch the service, and you’d go along and whether you’re flying to China or Hong Kong or India all of those routes require Russian overfly.”
American says that of roughly 6,000 daily flights operated by the airline only one requires significant oversight and supervision from the integrated operations center – that is the JFK – DEL service.
While AA waits for overfly rights to be granted, the carrier says it will continue operating the flight “reliably” although with some compromises. For example, the airline is routinely asking for volunteers to be offloaded ‘just in case’ for weight and balance reasons, while check-in will be shut 75 minutes prior to departure.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.