Flyover Rights Withdrawn Lufthansa Cargo Banned from Russian Airspace

Resentment in Berlin, financial losses for Lufthansa: Russia's withdrawal of flyover rights for Lufthansa Cargo is causing havoc. Germany's government is working as fast as possible to find a solution -- and not saying anything about what provoked the problem.

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A Lufthansa Cargo plane at Frankfurt Airport.
DDP

A Lufthansa Cargo plane at Frankfurt Airport.

Lufthansa Cargo was shocked by the announcement: Since Sunday midnight, Lufthansa's cargo planes have been banned from entering Russian airspace. "We heard about the ban at the very last minute," said a Lufthansa Cargo spokesman. "This means enormous financial losses for us. Flights to Japan, China, South Korea and Singapore have to be re-directed. Normally they would go via Astana in Kazakhstan and Tashkent in Uzbekistan."

Lufthansa Cargo is hoping for a solution at the governmental level. "This is a political affair. We can't do anything other than wait for a political solution," a spokesman said, adding that if Moscow doesn't reverse its decision soon, there will have to be a reduction of cargo flights to Asia. He refused to comment on reports that the ban may have been prompted by the company's delayed payments for its flyover rights.

Berlin is annoyed by the Russian ban. A spokesman from the Transport Ministry said that the misunderstanding is expected to be cleared up quickly. "Having conferred with the Chancellery, and the foreign and economics ministries, we are conducting talks with the Russian side," he said. No mention was made of the possible cause of the ban. "Negotiations are ongoing, so we don't want to discuss that at the moment." Spokespersons for the Chancellery and other ministries likewise refused to comment.

Transport Committee Annoyed

Several members of the parliamentary committee on transport expressed their frustration over the ban. "The way Russia fleeces airlines is akin to modern highway robbery," one parliamentarian said. Another mentioned that the European Union and Russia are currently negotiating an air traffic treaty. "Moscow's decision to withdraw flyover rights at precisely this moment amounts to a unilateral termination of these negotiations," he said. He claimed to know nothing about Russia's motives. Committee chairman Klaus Lippold of the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) likewise refused to comment.

Almost all countries levy fees for the right to fly over their territories. "These fees vary from country to country," says air traffic legal expert Ronald Schmid. "That's why, for instance, routes from Frankfurt sometimes take a zigzag course to Buenos Aires, Argentina, in order to avoid territories with high fees."

According to one EU report, European airlines pay roughly €300 million ($433 million) annually for the right to fly through Russian airspace. A debate between the EU and Russia over these fees has been dragging on for almost 20 years. In a compromise reached by both sides in 2006, but which Moscow has yet to ratify, Russia agreed to abolish the fee by the end of 2013. Legal experts say that fees levied for flyover rights can only be applied to flight safety and must not exceed these expenses.

"For decades, EU airlines have been required to pay fees to the Russian company Aeroflot for the right to use Russian airspace between the EU and Japan, China and South Korea. These are in addition to the standard flight navigation fees," states a European Union paper. Airlines from the EU are thus obliged to enter into a commercial contract with Aeroflot. According to the authorities in Brussels, this practice contravenes international law and, in particular, the Chicago Convention of 1944, which guarantees air carriers flyover rights at no or limited expense.

The European Commission made the abolition of the fees a pre-condition to Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO). And, in May 2004, Moscow committed to eliminating the fee. Starting in 2010, the rate is to be steadily reduced and airlines will no longer be required to enter into contractual agreements with Aeroflot.

Moscow Blames an Expired Contract

Members of the parliamentary transport committee consider Russia's cooperative attitude to be a thing of the past. "Russia is an unreliable partner," said one politician, referring to the fact that a few days ago, Moscow denied a Hong Kong passenger jet bound for London the right to fly over its territory, meaning that the passengers had to wait for hours at the airport in Hong Kong.

A spokesman for the Russian Transport Ministry refused to accept any responsibility, saying that air traffic between Germany and Russia was in no way affected and that Lufthansa Cargo had simply neglected to extend a contract that expired on Oct. 27. "That is why Lufthansa Cargo flights are banned from Russian airspace. There's no reason other than the expiration of the contract," he said, adding that it was up to the Germans to begin negotiating and to renew their contract.

On Monday, Germany responded to the Russian ban by prohibiting Aeroflot flights from using German airspace. According to a spokeswoman for Frankurt Airport, the German ban was lifted on Tuesday. But in the meantime, Aeroflot had to divert some flights -- to Luxemburg.

With additional reporting by Olga Zasuhina

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