Aeroflot halting all foreign flights, minus Belarus, from March 8

Move comes after aviation agency cites high risk of foreign-leased planes being impounded as part of Western sanctions.

The logo of Russia's flagship airline Aeroflot is seen on an Airbus A320-200 in Colomiers near Toulouse, France,
Aeroflot is Russia’s biggest state-owned airline [File: Regis Duvignau/Reuters]

Aeroflot, Russia’s flagship carrier, says it is suspending all international flights – except to neighbouring Belarus – starting on March 8, as Moscow faces a sweeping range of Western sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine.

The move on Saturday came after the country’s civil aviation body, Rosaviatsiya, recommended that all Russian airlines operating foreign-leased planes halt both passenger and cargo flights abroad, citing a high risk of rental aircraft being impounded as part of Western sanctions that ban leasing of planes to Russia.

Rosaviatsiya’s recommendation does not apply to Russian airlines that use Russian planes or foreign planes that are not at risk of being impounded. It also does not apply to foreign airlines from countries that have not imposed sanctions on Russia and have not shut down their airspace for Russian planes.

More than half of the commercial aircraft in Russia are leased, according to Aviation Week, an industry publication.

An Aeroflot statement on the “temporary suspension of all international flights from March 8” cited new “circumstances that impede the operation of flights”. It noted all domestic routes would continue unchanged, as well as flights to Belarus, whose leader Alexander Lukashenko is a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russia’s biggest state-owned airline also said it would cancel return tickets for passengers who are scheduled to depart Russia after March 6 and travel back after March 8. Those with one-way tickets will be allowed to fly up until March 8.

Rosaviatsia also recommended Russians seeking to return home from foreign countries arrange flights transiting through countries that had not joined sanctions, such as Azerbaijan, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Serbia.

Earlier this week, another Russian carrier, S7, announced the suspension of all its international flights due to sanctions imposed on Russia over the country’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

The budget airline Pobeda – a subsidiary of Aeroflot – also said it will be halting international flights from March 8.

The airline sector was one of the first to be affected by the economic fallout from the war.

Russian carrier Aeroflot was banned from the airspace of the entire EU, the United Kingdom and Canada, forcing it to suspend flights to these destinations.

In retaliation, Russia has banned airlines from those same countries from flying over its territory.

Putin, who on Saturday visited an Aeroflot training centre outside the capital, Moscow, says his aims in Ukraine are to defend Russian-speaking communities through the “demilitarisation and de-Nazification” of the country so that it becomes neutral.

Ukraine and Western countries have dismissed this as a baseless pretext for the invasion and have imposed harsh sanctions aimed at isolating Moscow.

“These sanctions that are being imposed are akin to a declaration of war but thank God it has not come to that,” Putin told Aeroflot staff.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies