Who rules the Crimean Skies?

Following the annexation of the Crimean peninsula by Russia the air navigation services have to be redefined, including the skies over wide parts of the Black Sea. Fast solutions are required to prevent any traffic risks for cargo and passenger flights.

Hazardous, while controversial and much disputed air traffic control area /  source: Eurocontrol
Hazardous, while controversial and much disputed air traffic control area / source: Eurocontrol

Who exactly is mastering cargo air traffic matters above Crimean skies and parts of the surrounding Black Sea? This is a pressing question that is crying out to be instantly solved in order to enable safe flying in that politically contested region.

Eurocontrol steps in
The first official move was made by Eurocontrol that closed a number of routes linking Sevastopol and Simferopol. In an announcement to all airspace users the agency justifies the closure with reference to ICAO standards. The message reads: “Eurocontrol is strictly following ICAO Convention on International Civil Aviation and will not recognize any unilateral declaration of air navigation service provision over any part of Ukrainian airspace other than from the Ukrainian authority.” In its statement the organization further says that their network managers will coordinate with Ukrainian, Rumanian, Bulgarian, and Turkish Area Control Centers in order to mitigate possible impacts of disrupted traffic flows. According to its own basic principles, Eurocontrol leaves Russian ACCs out in this list.

Kiev is acting according to international law
As of today, Ukrainian controllers manage the airspace above the Crimea and large parts of the Black Sea skies beginning at an altitude of 1,000 meters and above, whereas Crimean watchdogs are responsible for the entire traffic taking place below one kilometer, coordinating predominantly the approaches and the climbing of aircraft after their departures. 
In practice this means that local Crimean controllers are not allowed to interfere in traffic decisions taken by the Ukrainian side in altitudes higher than one kilometer. Or else, their doing would provoke chaos in the sky and endanger aviation in the entire region, including planes en route across the Black Sea. 

This is contested by the Russian government
Moscow officials hold that all traffic operations over the Crimea and the surrounding waters are subject to control by Russian officials. Since the peninsula became part of the Russian Federation as result of a referendum, the sovereign rights of the Crimea have automatically been shifted to the Russian area control centers, officials claim. As to the Kremlin’s understanding it’s them who are now responsible for managing the entire traffic flows in that region.
It should be noted that according to UN and ICAO rules not a single UN member state can reshape the airspace according to its own needs without reaching consent with other countries directly involved. It is not expected that the Ukraine will give way and bow to pressure exercised by the Putin regime.
According to figures published by the Russian paper Izvestia, about 900 aircraft have operated to and from airports in the Crimea per month prior to the peninsula becoming part of Russia. However, the manpower situation has thinned out notably since 44 traffic controllers had quit on the spot after Russia took over command, leaving only 152 coordinators on duty for managing all movements of civil and military aircraft. 
Meanwhile, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs remained tight-lipped when asked to comment on the fact that the Ukraine continues controlling the airspace of up to 1,000 meters over the Crimea and most parts of the surrounding Black Sea.

Aeroflot flies its Crimean flag
Despite the impending threat of potential traffic collisions resulting of conflicting air guidance systems Aeroflot Airlines is fiercely determined to fly its Crimean flag. The carrier together with some of its subsidiaries has just announced to increase the frequencies of flights to and from the peninsula to 77 each week. The ticket prices will be halved compared to those charged by SU on these routes prior to Russia’s intervention. Air freight transport in the holds of the airline’s passenger jets will also become substantially cheaper.

First signs of easing tensions?
Simultaneously, Kiev and Moscow have taken first tentative steps to shape a bilateral arrangement to coordinate traffic flows in the Crimea region. The entire process is still in its preliminary stage, but at least the exchange of written arguments has begun. 


Mail services suspended
The state owned Czech mail service has begun refusing accepting letters and parcels addressed to the Crimea. This is because the Ukrainian post is facing severe problems maintaining any delivery services at the peninsula since its annexation by Russia. Last Friday the German Post followed the Czech example by taking the same step. Excluded from this Crimea embargo are express services since DHL, UPS and other integrators are managing the entire supply chain from a single source with their own personnel.

Heiner Siegmund