Russia’s military buildup around Ukraine presents the airline industry with a dilemma as airlines and aviation insurers assess at what point the risk of invasion could make it unsafe to fly over or into the country.
Their decisions could weigh heavily on Ukrainian government efforts to maintain economic stability in the face of political uncertainty and to project an image of calm.
The Dutch airline KLM said on Saturday that it would stop flights to, from and over Ukraine because of safety concerns. Ukraine International Airlines continues to operate its schedule of flights, while Latvian carrier airBaltic scheduled extra flights on Tuesday and Wednesday to meet passenger demand from Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, to the Latvian capital, Riga.
Many airlines and aviation insurers said that they were watching developments and prepared to respond quickly.
“Most airlines are adopting a wait-and-see approach, but if there’s a movement of troops in the direction of Ukraine, we will see a rapid escalation and airlines will say we are going to avoid overflying Belarus and Ukraine’s airspace,” said Mark Zee, founder of Opsgroup, an organization that shares information among flight professionals.
Projections for the overall number of flights to Ukraine in February planned by six of the biggest carriers to the country dipped on Feb. 11 compared to a week earlier, but not enough to signal a significant shift in airlines’ plans, according to Cirium, an airline data company.
“Airlines have not made any major alterations to their scheduled flights into Ukraine, suggesting that their operational risk assessment is still sufficiently favorable to continue service,” said George Dimitroff, an analyst at Cirium.
The July 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 by a missile from territory held by rebels in eastern Ukraine sharpened discussion within the industry about the threat of an armed group misidentifying a civilian aircraft, Mr. Zee said. All 298 people on board, many of them Dutch, died in the attack.
“After Malaysia 17 the industry said: ‘We really need to talk to each other about risk,’” Mr. Zee said. Since then, some airlines, including KLM, have avoided flying over eastern Ukraine.
Maintaining civilian air traffic is a priority for Ukraine’s government, which is seeking to preserve stability in the face of the Russian buildup. Ukraine’s infrastructure ministry said this week that it was setting up a $590 million fund to insure aircraft flying through the country’s airspace. Twenty-nine airlines operate flights from 34 countries to Ukraine, it said.