The high-profile boss of low-fare carrier Norwegian Air is frustrated over Russian authorities’ refusal to let his airline’s Oslo-Bangkok flights fly over Russian airspace. Bjørn Kjos is calling on Norwegian authorities to respond by closing Norway’s airspace to Russian airlines.
“I think that’s the only language the Russians would understand,” Kjos told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Friday.
Kjos’ demand comes just after his airline had to report heavy losses in 2014, mostly because of the high costs of Norwegian’s expansion into intercontinental routes. Among them is a costly detour that Norwegian flights are forced to take when flying between Oslo and Bangkok, a route that Kjos had expected would be profitable.
Instead it’s far more expensive than that operated, for example, by rival Thai Airways. While Thai is allowed to fly straight over Russia, Norwegian must first fly south from Oslo to Turkey before being able to head east to Bangkok. The detour adds at least an hour of flying time to Bangkok and can make the trip as long as 13 hours on the return. That means much higher fuel costs and occasionally higher personnel costs if two cockpit crews are needed because of the time involved. The Russians’ refusal to grant airspace rights also puts Norwegian at a competitive disadvantage, since passengers can opt for a shorter and more direct flight on Thai.
It remains unclear why Russian authorities have refused to give Norwegian rights to fly over its territory, since Norwegian uses Russian airspace on other routes, to Dubai, for example, and also runs flights to St Petersburg. “This is just meaningless,” Kjos fumed.
Norwegian has sent several letters to Russia regarding airspace rights but its application hasn’t been processed. In a letter sent to Norwegian on January 23, the Russian authorities wrote that “bilateral agreements” between Norway and Russia didn’t allow such airspace rights, although such agreements haven’t affected the Oslo-based airline’s other routes over Russia. Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) also runs several flights between Scandinavia and Asia that all use Russian airspace, although not directly from Norway.
Kjos has lost patience and told DN that Norwegian authorities should respond by closing Norway’s own airspace for all Russian flights heading for North American, for example. If Norway treated Russian airlines the same way Russia has treated Norwegian, Kjos says, the Russians wouldn’t be able to fly from Moscow to New York. “I think we need to play hard too,” Kjos told DN. “Norway should tell Russia that we’ll close our airspace if they don’t open theirs. Then I think the matter would be settled in the space of 24 hours.”
Ministry asks for an explanation
DN reported that its efforts to obtain comment on the issue from Russian authorities went unanswered. Tom Cato Karlsen, state secretary in the Transport Ministry from the Progress Party, said the government has asked the Russian authorities to explain why they won’t allow Norwegian to fly over Russia on the Bangkok routes. He wouldn’t say whether the government will seriously consider closing Norwegian airspace, at a time of rising tensions between Russia and other western nations including Norway.
“We haven’t drawn any conclusions yet,” Karlsen told DN. “The Russians are aware that this can affect Russian airlines’ opportunities to fly over out territory if Norwegian airlines aren’t allowed to fly over Russian territory in accordance with what’s been agreed between the two countries.”