PAL Uses Russian Airspace for Commercial Flights

According to Flight Radar 24, Philippine Airlines (PAL) flight PR720 has for the first time since its relaunch in November 2013 used Russian airspace on July 23, 2014. As of around 7:10 pm (Philippine standard time), Flight Radar 24 reported the London-bound flight to be just west of Moscow.  The flight landed in London Heathrow at 3:19 pm local time (10:19 pm Philippine Standard time).

Copyright Photo: Angelo Agcamaran/PPSG
Russian airspace has been a highly-coveted passageway for flights between Europe and East Asia. Even PAL's President and COO Ramon Ang said at the time of the inaugural flight that they hoped to secure access to Russian airspace to reduce travel times by up to two hours. Russia does not subscribe to the International Air Services Transit Agreement (IASTA). Under the ICAO's first freedom rights, countries may freely pass through each others' airspace without landing. However, passing through non-IASTA countries first may be inevitable. As a non-IASTA country, Russia does not automatically grant first freedom rights to carriers of other countries. Foreign carriers must pay a hefty amount of money to the Russian government to pass through Russian airspace. It remains officially undisclosed how much carriers actually pay Russia to fly over its territory but a report by Aviation Week suggests European carriers collectively pay between €300 and €400 million (£250 to £330 million) per year to do so. Philippine Airlines flies through Russian airspace for delivery flights which are reportedly not subject to overflight fees.

Under alternate routings, Philippine Airlines usually has to fly through Indochina, India, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, South East and Central Europe before heading over to the UK. The journey time under that set-up lasts approximately 15.5 hours.

As at 7.15 pm on July 23, PR720 is west of Moscow
Source: Flight Radar 24
If Philippine Airlines chooses to use Russian airspace regularly, its route will usually involve China, Kazahkstan, Russia, the Baltic States, Poland, Germany, and the Netherlands before finally proceeding to the UK. This routing involves more places found in northern latitudes. Due to the earth's geography and the UK's latitude, passing through the north keeps the distance between the origin and final destination shorter.

In any case, PAL is not expected to pass through the Ukraine, whose eastern border with Russia was the scene of a deadly Malaysian Airlines plane crash last July 17. It is widely believed that flight MH17 was shot down by Russian rebels in the midst of an armed conflict with the Ukrainian government. All 298 passengers and crew on board, including three Filipinos are presumed dead. Most carriers with flights between Europe and Asia have decided to take alternate routes after the incident. PAL reassured the public that it uses safe airspace. Even with a great circle trajectory, which is the shortest distance between two points, Philippine Airlines is still expected to avoid Ukrainian airspace.

It remains to be seen whether PAL will regularly utilize Russian airspace or if this is just a one-time occurrence. However, the London flights are expected to be downgraded to an Airbus A340-300 (A343) on August 6, 2014. PR720/721 is currently flown by PAL's flagship aircraft, the Boeing 777-300 (77W), which is the only aircraft type in PAL's fleet capable of flying longer than 15 hours.

With the A343 aircraft, passengers in economy class bound for London will need to endure a flight with less in-flight entertainment options as the aircraft's economy class section only features main screen entertainment and does not have provisions to recharge personal electronic devices. The A343 is nonetheless capable of handling a non-stop Manila-London flight routed through Russia. Until the Spring of 2004, Air France used to fly an A343 between Manila and Paris three times a week without any stops.

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