International sanctions against Russia could force Emirates to reroute U.S.-bound flights via Europe, where a refuelling stop would then be needed to make it all the way to West Coast destinations like Los Angeles and San Francisco.
In the past 24-hours, a growing list of European countries have banned Russian airliners from using their airspace, and in retaliation, Moscow has quickly applied similar airspace bans.
A broad EU-wide airspace ban is expected later on Sunday, but so far, at least, the United States has refused to follow the lead of countries like the UK, Poland and Estonia.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has also been playing it safe and is trying to keep Russian President Vladimir Putin on side by maintaining diplomatic relations and controversially abstaining on a United Nations resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
But the “sinister” situation has forced Emirates’ President Sir Tim Clark to start preparing for different eventualities, including a possible ban on the airline using Russian airspace.
Emirates normally routes its U.S. bound flights through Russia to take advantage of the earth’s curvature and reduce the total distance from Dubai. If it is forced to avoid Russia, the Dubai-based airline could reroute through Europe, but the extra distance would require a refuelling stop for some destinations.
“We’ve been preparing for this very scenario. We’ve been looking at our US operation to the west coast, which goes right through Russian airspace,” Sir Tim told the Telegraph in an interview printed on Sunday.
“If push comes to shove, we can still fly but have to go into some European point filled up with fuel. Hopefully it won’t get to that. But when you start aggression, you never know which way this will go, however hard you try.”
Airlines in the Middle East could, however, still be one of the winners from the escalating dispute between Russia and the West. With Russian airspace now heavily restricted there is a big question over how airlines will fly between Europe and Asia and the Far East.
There are two options available. Either route further South and make the journey a lot longer or go in the complete opposite direction via Alaska – with a possible refuelling stop in Anchorage. This is the route that airlines had to rely upon during the Cold War.
Both options could make a stopover in the Persian Gulf a lot more attractive.
“We’re pretty good at responding to situations like this,” Sir Tim told the Telegraph. “But this is a little bit more sinister,” he warned
“You never know what’s going to happen next. We’ve got passengers, we’ve got crews, we’ve got assets in a lot of the countries in and around the conflict.”
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.