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Can Ukraine resume air traffic amid wartime in 2024?

Iryna Vyhodyanska
12 February, 2024 Monday
17:30

Ukraine is making significant efforts to restore air traffic between its major cities and the EU, which was interrupted with the outbreak of the large-scale war in February 2022

At the onset of the full-scale war, air traffic with Ukraine was indefinitely suspended. As the second anniversary of active hostilities approached, Ukrainian authorities started expressing intentions to resume flights.

Espreso explores the feasibility of Ukraine resuming air traffic before the ongoing war ends. 

The article addresses:

  • What Ukrainian authorities say regarding reopening the country’s air space?
  • What are the obstacles that need to be addressed before restarting civil aviation activities?
  • Are airlines willing to resume their operations in Ukraine?
  • Are Ukrainian airports ready for reopening?
  • Why resuming air traffic is important for Ukraine?

The topic gained traction in Ukraine during the summer of 2023, with discussions revolving around the suspension of civil aviation flights since February 24, 2022. In July 2023, Ryanair, a European airline, sent a delegation to Kyiv to assess the situation and propose a plan for reinstating aviation operations in the country. Although considerations were made regarding reopening airports in key Ukrainian cities like Kyiv, Lviv, Odesa, and Uzhhorod, concrete decisions were not made.

In January 2024, discussions resumed, with Rostyslav Shurma, Deputy Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, affirming during a panel discussion at Ukraine House Davos that efforts are underway to restore air traffic.

What Ukrainian authorities say regarding reopening the country’s air space?

Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) Secretary, Oleksiy Danilov, explained that four key components need to be resolved in order to resume air traffic. 

"This is a very important issue for us (the resumption of air traffic - ed.). Because today, when it comes to the arrival of representatives of certain countries to our country, whether for business or for some other reasons, this is a very, very important component. I think this issue will definitely move forward in 2024," Danilov said.

According to him, various proposals are currently under consideration, with a focus on addressing four key components. These include safeguarding airports, preparing and certifying infrastructure, implementing an insurance mechanism, and identifying an airline willing to undertake the flights.

"I think that by working together, we will definitely resolve all these issues and sooner or later we will be able to use our skies," the NSDC Secretary emphasized.

According to Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovyi, air traffic could potentially resume as early as 2024 if certain conditions are met. These conditions include bolstering air defense, ensuring airline insurance, and taking international action. 

"From a security standpoint, this issue carries significant sensitivity. However, discussions are underway at various levels, and it's feasible. Of course, it entails the relocation of air defense systems from the Polish side to Ukrainian territory, a distance of just 70 kilometers. Additionally, corresponding measures need to be coordinated internationally. I am optimistic that this year will see the resumption of air service between Lviv and global destinations," remarked the mayor of Lviv.

President of Ukraine Zelenskyy also mentioned discussing the matter with international partners and having clarity on the necessary steps.

"Frankly speaking, we are asking this question to our partners and we know exactly what we need to do for this,” he said.

What are the obstacles that need to be addressed before restarting civil aviation activities?

Mykhailo Podolyak, the advisor to the head of Ukraine’s Office of the President, highlighted the need for Ukraine to address several tasks surrounding the resumption of flights. 

"Preparations are underway, including at Boryspil (Ukraine’s biggest air hub -  ed.). However, security issues require a more comprehensive and substantial approach," emphasized the advisor.

He stressed the importance of decreasing the intensity of Russia's aerial threats, which remain a concern. Until Ukraine effectively tackles these security challenges, opening a new hub for air transportation will remain challenging.

Podolyak underscored the necessity of securing agreements with partners to bolster Ukraine's air defense systems. 

"Various solutions are being explored, with logistical preparations already in progress," he noted.

Earlier, Andriy Yermak, head of the President's Office, expressed confidence in the imminent resumption of operations at Boryspil Airport, stating that measures are in place to ensure the facility's security.

Rostyslav Shurma also corroborated these assessments in his latest statement. He emphasized that the potential resumption of air traffic in Ukraine hinges on decisions made by international partners, independent regulators, and insurance companies. Moreover, the success of this endeavor relies, in part, on Ukraine's capability to ensure the physical safety of flights.

"We have an internal roadmap and schedule in place. I prefer not to specify exact deadlines at this moment. If it were solely within our control, I might consider making a public commitment, but realistically, our contribution to the process is around 20%," he stated. 

"Our team is closely collaborating with our Israeli counterparts to glean insights from their experiences. We are fully confident in our ability to achieve success," affirmed the deputy head of the Presidential Office.

Furthermore, he highlighted the importance of securing approval from the European regulator IATA (International Air Transport Association) and establishing dependable insurance mechanisms to reassure lessors about providing aircraft.

"In this regard, our objective remains consistent: to devise appropriate risk instruments facilitating airlines to operate flights to Kyiv, as part of our planned opening," Shurma concluded.

According to Shurma, the resumption of air traffic largely relies on Ukraine's capability to guarantee the physical safety of flights, as well as the decisions made by international partners, independent regulators, and insurance companies.

Are airlines willing to resume their operations in Ukraine?

Several airlines have expressed their intention to resume flights to and from Ukraine once the security situation permits. 

During an interview with Interfax-Ukraine, Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary presented two potential scenarios for recommencing flights. The first scenario involved resuming air traffic immediately following the conclusion of the war, while the second, deemed more pragmatic, proposed initiating a limited number of flights.

O'Leary clarified that securing permission to resume flights in Ukraine hinged upon obtaining a favorable assessment from EASA (European Union Aviation Safety Agency). 

“If the agency says it's safe, then there's no reason not to fly back to Ukraine,” the CEO explained.

He noted ongoing negotiations with Ukrainian authorities on this matter. He stressed that a positive decision from EASA was crucial for unlocking the opportunity to operate flights to Ukraine.

“We submitted to the minister plan to restart aviation in Ukraine. We've committed that if the EASA confirms opening the skies and there have been competitive cost at the airports, we will put 5 million seats into Ukraine in year one. Within six weeks of the skies reopening, we think it's possible that we can connect Kyiv to 25 European cities,” he said.

Ryanair representatives highlighted the Israeli experience as a precedent for conducting flights amid military operations.

“It's possible. Look at what the Israeli authorities do. We operate in and out of Israel. We fly to Tel-Aviv airport. Occasionally, there are rockets coming from the West Bank, with Hamas firing rockets. So, it is possible, but we have to persuade the European safety authorities that it's safe. The airport and the government here have to show that they can protect flights going in and out of Kyiv and Lviv, because without that the safety authorities and the insurance companies won't allow the flights to take place.”

However, concrete indications from EASA regarding the resumption of flights to Ukraine have not yet materialized. Consequently, even if Ukraine were to reopen its airspace independently, air carriers would face restrictions.

SkyUp, a Ukrainian airline, is also prepared to be at the forefront of the return to the skies when civil aviation reopens. The airline is poised to launch its initial flights within a few days of the resumption of air traffic, although a complete restart of operations may take several months.

SkyUp maintains its team and fleet, actively incorporating new technologies to enhance flight safety.

"The global ecosystem, comprising both global and regional competent organizations, is actively working towards establishing an efficient flight safety system. When considering the resumption of civil aviation before the war concludes, it is clear that permission from the Ukrainian Armed Forces must be obtained first," emphasized SkyUp.

In another announcement during the summer of 2023, Ukrainian airline Air Ocean Airlines shared its plans.

According to the company's director, Viacheslav Heriha, Air Ocean Airlines is prepared to commence flights from Uzhhorod Airport once safety conditions allow.

In the event that Uzhhorod Airport remains closed for passenger flights, Air Ocean Airlines stands ready to operate internationally through wet leasing arrangements. This entails leasing aircraft with crews to other airlines.

Are Ukrainian airports ready for reopening?

Boryspil Airport, Ukraine's primary air gateway, appears prepared to resume operations. CEO Oleksiy Dubrevskyi stated that the airport had been gearing up for post-war activity, retaining staff and securing agreements with airlines.

"We aim to avoid spending one or two years contemplating, 'What do we do post-war?' We're actively taking all required measures to resume flights swiftly. Having addressed and repaired all damages, we are prepared to commence operations as soon as possible," he affirmed.

Following the invasion, Boryspil Airport faced runway blockades and the shutdown of navigation systems. Despite these challenges, the airport maintained its workforce, ensuring their employment and keeping certifications up to date. 

In June 2023, Maksym Kozytskyi, the head of Lviv Regional Administration, stated that there were considerations for Danylo Halytskyi Lviv International Airport to resume operations as a humanitarian corridor. A year earlier, in September 2022, Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov had expressed that Lviv was being contemplated as the first airport to reopen among Ukrainian airports.

"We are contemplating Lviv airport as the initial reopening. I am hopeful that, similar to the Black Sea Grain Initiative, once we secure guaranteed safety, primarily from international partners and the UN, we can commence operations," shared Kubrakov.

However, as of now, Lviv airport has only conducted limited evacuations.

Why resuming air traffic is important for Ukraine?

Resuming air traffic is not only about restoring the mobility of people but is also a key driver for economic recovery, growth, and international engagement for Ukraine.

A well-connected aviation network is often seen as a positive factor for foreign investors. Resuming air traffic signals a return to normalcy, which can boost confidence in the Ukrainian economy and attract foreign investment.

One of the key reasons for reopening Ukraine’s airspace, Shurma said, is contacts with investors and businessmen who want to join projects in Ukraine. According to him, the availability of reliable logistics and transportation, especially air travel, are fundamentally important elements of the country's business and investment activities.

"If investors and businessmen cannot comfortably and quickly get to the places they need, they will not come and do any work," the deputy head of the Presidential Office stated.

The opening of Ukraine’s air space would also hold symbolic significance. President Zelenskyy weighed in on the reopening of Boryspil Airport, linking it to a sign of Ukraine's progress and success in air defense, which would in turn signal strength to the economy. 

"Boryspil Airport is akin to the Black Sea – a highly significant operation. The reopening of Boryspil signifies a triumph for Ukrainian air defense, showcasing Ukraine's success. It also marks a powerful economic move," expressed President Zelenskyy.

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