Travellers flying to China and Hong Kong from the US face delays of up to eight hours this week as American Airlines, the world’s biggest airline, diverted some flights to avoid Russian airspace and urged passengers to reconsider travel plans.
Describing the move as a “re-routing” for selected flights to Beijing and Hong Kong, American Airlines posted a travel alert on its website on Saturday. The change is set to affect several hundred passengers each day on three flights.
American Airlines said it was facing restricted airspace on some routes forcing it to divert, refuel and replenish crew on three US-Asia flights.
A source at the airline said the airspace problems it was facing were not unique to them, but affected all US carriers. American said it was working with government bodies in Washington, though it remains to be seen if the restrictions could extend to more Asia-bound flights for US carriers. Hong Kong carriers are not affected.
The United States and China are the first and second biggest air travel markets in the world.
Passengers due to fly between April 14 and April 21 could move flights up to May 5 at no charge, American Airlines said on its website, indicating it would face prolonged flight disruption for up to a week or more.
Dallas-Hong Kong, Dallas-Beijing and Chicago-Beijing flights since Saturday have stopped for fuel in Los Angeles, as the company opted to route planes over the Pacific Ocean, avoiding a route that skirted US and Russian airspace, passing Alaska and into Siberia.
American Air Flight 125 from Dallas left the Texan city on Saturday morning, diverted to Los Angeles for fuel and took to the skies again. Originally scheduled to arrive in Hong Kong at 4.10pm on Sunday, the flight was set to land at 9.50pm instead.
Meanwhile, Flight 187 from Chicago left at 6pm on Saturday and though originally due to arrive in Beijing at 8.20pm on Sunday, was instead scheduled to land at 4.20am.
In a statement, American Airlines said: “American continues to coordinate with Airlines for America (a US carrier lobby group), the US Department of State, Department for Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration.
“At this time, in order to avoid the potential of restricted airspace, three flights to Asia from the US may require a technical stop to refuel and crew.
“While this is not a sustainable long-term solution, we are doing everything possible to minimise the disruption for our customers and team members including coordinating with our code-share and Oneworld partners.”
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CNBC reported that an internal memo from American Airlines to its pilots stated: “The team at American regularly monitors global geopolitical issues and makes changes to aircraft routings when warranted.”
Meanwhile, US airlines could lose the right to fly in Russian airspace, trade publication The Loadstar reported last week. Permission was said to expire on April 17, Tuesday, and talks between Russian and US aviation officials would begin only on the following day.
The airline memo said it was also working “on our contingency plans in case certain areas are restricted”.
Delta Air Lines and United said they were not aware of any travel disruption affecting flights from the US to Asia, however.
United Flight 179 from New York Newark and UA869 from San Francisco – both flying to Hong Kong on Saturday and due to arrive on Sunday – appeared to fly their normal route, which passes through Russian airspace.