Eastern European countries are monitoring their airspace carefully after Ukraine closed its airspace to commercial flights.
Russia has launched a land, sea and air invasion, and Europe’s aviation regulator has now warned of the dangers of flying in bordering countries.
Moldova, southwest of Ukraine, has banned commercial flights, while Belarus to the north said civilian planes could no longer fly over part of its territory.
Why do countries close their airspace during war?
“There is a risk of both intentional targeting and misidentification of civil aircraft,” the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) said in a conflict zone bulletin.
The agency said airspace within 100 nautical miles of Russia’s borders with Ukraine could pose safety risks.
“The presence and possible use of a wide range of ground and airborne warfare systems poses a high risk for civil flights operating at all altitudes and flight levels.”
EU and NATO member Lithuania has declared a state of emergency in response to “possible disturbances and provocations due to large military forces massed in Russia and Belarus”. It is not yet clear how travel in and out of the Baltic country will be affected by this move.
The aviation industry has taken more notice of the risks posed by war since Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine in 2014, when Russia previously invaded the country.
Flight tracking data shows empty Ukrainian skies
Flight scanning websites and apps like FlightRadar24 recorded the sudden desertion of planes over Ukraine’s air space.
Early morning airline traffic skirted the whole country in crowded corridors to the north and west.
An El Al flight from Tel Aviv to Toronto made a sudden U-turn out of Ukraine’s airspace around the time of its closure, FlightRadar24 showed. While a LOT Polish Airlines flight from Warsaw to Kyiv turned back.
Russia said on Thursday it had suspended domestic flights to and from several airports near its border with Ukraine, including Rostov-on-Don, Krasnodar and Stavropol, until 2 March.
It closed some airspace in the Rostov sector “in order to provide safety” for civil flights, according to a notice to air crew.
Before Ukraine’s announcement this morning, Britain, Canada, France, Italy and the United States told their airlines to avoid certain airspace above eastern Ukraine and Crimea but stopped short of a total ban.
Aviation bosses cancel flights, saying safety is “paramount”
A number of airlines decided earlier this week to halt flights to Ukraine, including KLM and Lufthansa.
A statement from Ryanair says the airline has now suspended all flights to and from Ukraine for the next 14 days. “All affected passengers will receive email notices later this morning and all flights to/from Ukraine have been removed from sale for at least the next 4 weeks until further information becomes available from EU safety agencies,” it added, with an apology to all Ukrainian customers.
Wizz Air has also suspended “all operations” in Ukraine, saying affected passengers can find more information on their website or via the airline’s call centre on 00380 893 202 532.
Wizz have said, however, that tickets for flights to and from Ukraine are only suspended until Sunday 27 February at 23.59. This is “on order for Wizz Air to continue to operate essential flights for passengers who need to travel, flights for later dates are still available.”
IATA director general Willie Walsh described the escalation of events in Ukraine as “deeply saddening.”
Safety is always the top priority for aviation, he told Euronews Travel. “IATA is helping to facilitate the relevant and timely sharing of information with airlines from government and non-government sources to support airlines as they plan their operations around airspace closures in the Ukraine and parts of Russia.”
On the airspace closures, director general of Airport Council International Europe Olivier Jankovec, says “Those airports in regions at the heart of the conflict are critically impacted as their operations, their personnel and their families deal with the immediacy of their changing environment.
“For every airport, the safety of passengers and personnel is paramount, and the swift, effective management of crisis situations is always to the fore when operations are disrupted.
“Our thoughts are with our colleagues as they respond to this emergency.”