Airlines Slash Routes to Moscow in Latest Sign of Russia's Growing Isolation

Carriers scratch flights as the number of foreign visitors declines and the plunging ruble keeps Russian vacationers at home

Western sanctions and plunging oil prices are pushing Putin's Russia into recession.

Western sanctions and plunging oil prices are pushing Putin's Russia into recession.

Photographer: Akos Stiller/Bloomberg

In 2012, British discount airline EasyJet beat Virgin Atlantic Airways in a fierce competition for the rights to fly from London's Gatwick to Moscow's Domodedovo airport, a route that became available when its former operator was swallowed up in a merger. British aviation regulators gave the nod to EasyJet, which hailed the decision as a milestone in its international development.

Now, EasyJet has scaled back its London-Moscow service, from two daily flights to only one in each direction. The move, which took effect in late January, "was in response to the reduction in demand to and from Russia in recent months," an airline spokeswoman says.

The British discounter is one of many airlines curtailing flights to Russia and shelving planned expansion there, as the number of Russians vacationing abroad has plummeted and fewer foreign businesspeople and tourists are visiting the country. 

For the airlines, it's a simple matter of supply and demand. But the reduced traffic at Russia's international airports mirrors the country's growing political isolation and weakened economic clout, as Western sanctions and lower oil prices push Russia into recession. 

Once-shabby airports such as Moscow's Domodedovo, Sheremetyevo, and Vnukovo have been emblems of Russia's booming economy during most of President Vladimir Putin's tenure. All three airports underwent extensive renovations to accommodate traffic that has more than quadrupled since 2000 to a combined 77 million passengers in 2014, exceeding international hubs such as London Heathrow and Dubai. Those gleaming new terminals in Moscow are getting a lot quieter.

On Wednesday, Delta Air Lines announced it will suspend service to Moscow during the final three months of this year, meaning that no U.S. passenger carrier will fly to the Russian capital during that period. Delta has already trimmed its spring and summer service to Russia; it now flies only five times a week between New York City and Moscow, down from seven in 2014.

Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific says it will end service to Moscow in June. And Air India, which had resumed flying from Delhi to Moscow in 2014 after a 15-year hiatus, cut back service to two flights a week in February after filling an average of only 47 percent of seats on the route. Others scaling back include Middle Eastern carriers Etihad and Qatar, as well as Czech Airlines, which is scrapping plans to serve the regional cities of Kazan, Kaliningrad, Perm, and Ufa this summer.

"We have been relocating the capacity freed in the Russian market, which has been experiencing a significant drop in demand," the company said in a statement.

Russian-based airlines are taking even more drastic steps, as the ruble's sharp decline has led to a more than 50 percent drop in the number of Russians traveling abroad, according to the government. The country's air-transportation agency reported on March 24 that Russian carriers were abandoning 71 international routes linking Russian cities to such destinations as Barcelona, Dubai, Tel Aviv, and Vienna. Carriers Transaero and UTAir accounted for most of the reductions.

 

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