Ukraine aims to get air traffic restart ready for take off

Kyiv in talks with insurers in London to resume commercial flights despite challenges posed by war

Hostomel cargo airport was a Ukrainian resistance symbol as Russia struggled to secure a foothold in Kyiv early in the war. Getty Images
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Ukraine is exploring ways to reopen its airspace with the help of London insurers, but military needs, staff shortages and airfields damaged in the war with Russia pose major challenges to the plan, The National has been told.

Returning commercial planes to the skies would allow Ukraine to take another step forward after it restored a Black Sea shipping lane, with flights likely to focus on the west of the country.

Passenger jets have been grounded since Russia began its invasion in February 2022, turning Ukraine into a black hole in maps of Europe on tracking websites including FlightRadar.

A 37-drone barrage carried out by Russia on Friday, days after a near-miss involving Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, emphasised the threat the war poses. Ukraine said its missiles shot down more than a dozen warplanes in recent weeks.

The shutdown of Ukraine's airspace has hit the economy and forced refugees to flee the conflict through long journeys by rail and road. US President Joe Biden travelled for 10 hours by train to reach Kyiv in February last year.

The need to avoid Ukrainian airspace has also affected commercial air travel, increasing costs and emissions.

But reopening its skies is risky and it is doubtful that airlines would choose to cross the country if Ukraine’s military is too stretched to arrange an escort.

Nato's unwillingness to enforce a no-fly zone for Russian warplanes has not changed despite French President Emmanuel Macron's pledge of unlimited support for Ukraine.

“We need to understand that an hour of military jet flight costs $20,000 to $40,000. It’s too expensive,” Bogdan Dolintse, an aviation expert and former training manager at Kyiv’s Boryspil Airport, told The National.

“Who pays for this? The government can’t pay such a cost for supporting civilian flights and civilian airlines can’t provide this because it increases the cost of tickets two or three times.”

In the absence of a military escort, airlines could seek insurance to cover war risks. Broker Marsh McLennan, which last week expanded an initiative for Black Sea shipping, is in talks with Ukraine about a potential air corridor.

“We’re talking about relatively small investments making a massive difference on Ukraine’s economy,” said Crispin Ellison, a partner at Marsh subsidiary Oliver Wyman.

But the financial risks involved are “significantly higher than those for shipping” and the talks have still got quite a long way to go, he said.

Officials are well aware of what happened to MH17, the Malaysian Airlines flight shot down over separatist-held eastern Ukraine in 2014. A Dutch court found two Russian citizen and a Ukrainian responsible for killing the 298 people on board.

Nonetheless, it is expected there will be demand for flights from Ukrainians living in Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic to avoid the difficult land routes when they visit their home country.

Ukraine has identified an air route as one of its key policy ideas for 2024 and hopes to re-open at least one airport, Economy Minister Yulia Svyrydenko said as she met insurers in London.

That would build on the progress that Ukraine made by pushing back Russia’s Black Sea fleet, opening a route for hundreds of grain vessels to help feed the world. “We would be very grateful to have a similar mechanism like has been proposed for the vessels,” Ms Svyrydenko said.

Before the war began, some plane owners banned travel over Ukraine as war clouds gathered. Aircraft belonging to Wizz Air were left stranded in Kyiv.

Staff at Kyiv Boryspil said the airport was still in good condition, while Ukrainian airlines including SkyUp, Windrose and Skyline Express have continued to operate flights in other countries.

The risk is that a working airport could become a "great target" for Russia, said Oleksandr Mironenko, who runs Ukrainian aviation website Avianews.

“I believe that Ukraine needs a great cover of western air defence systems and the change in the war intensity. Civil aviation flights are only possible during low-intensity war, as in 2014 to 2021,” he told The National.

“These two main conditions are still too far [away] to be completed. Now, we have a high-intensity war and the air defence is still weak in some points. Ukraine needs more air defence systems and more missiles for these systems.”

Kyiv has a second passenger airport called Zhuliany. An international cargo airfield, Hostomel, became an early Ukrainian resistance symbol as Russian paratroopers struggled to secure a foothold in the capital. Farther east, Kherson’s airport was all but destroyed in the conflict.

Then there are personnel problems. Ground staff have been able to keep up their certificates at training centres, but pilots need continuous flying time. Some have gone abroad, while others are in the military.

“Part of the personnel is now mobilised into the army or defence and security sector, and they can’t come back to their work,” Mr Dolintse said.

“Airports need to find new staff, or prepare personnel that have a critical certificate, like dangerous goods processing in airports or some high level of air security courses. Personnel may need to prepare for months or years.”

The World Bank’s most recent estimate says more than $1.7 billion would be needed to rebuild Ukraine’s airports. British business magnate Sir Richard Branson has offered to help rebuild the sector.

Experts say Ukraine needs more air defence equipment, but with western aid in doubt, not least due to Donald Trump’s gravitational pull on US politics, the military is likely to take priority for the time being.

“It is nonsense to escort passenger planes by fighters when the Ukrainian military needs their jets on the front line,” Mr Mironenko said. “Ukraine has reliable connections with Europe via railways. It is not as fast as the plane, but it is enough when the country is fighting.”

Updated: March 08, 2024, 10:00 AM