Russia and Germany Play Hard Ball on Cargo Traffic Rights

The upcoming German-Russian negotiations on air traffic rights, starting tomorrow (31 May) in Moscow promise to be extremely controversial with unpredictable results – if any at all. Each side accuses the other of having partially blocked an existing framework agreement.

Russian and German aviation negotiators lined up for an arm-wrestling competition  -  pictures: hs
Russian and German aviation negotiators lined up for an arm-wrestling competition - pictures: hs

These are preliminary talks, scheduled to give representatives of both sides the opportunity to evaluate if most of the existing hurdles blocking a more liberalized air traffic regime can be set aside before the official bilateral negotiations start in July.  
The landscape of diverse conflicts is as follows:
Russia claims being disadvantaged by German authorities who denied AirBridgeCargo operating rights for a third Boeing 747-400F /-8F transatlantic flight from Frankfurt to Chicago, complementing the existing twice-weekly line-haul service. 


“Germans should stick to what they promised,” Russian delegation demands
“There are certain misunderstandings which from the Russian side we aim to resolve through constructive dialogue this week,” states Oleg Demidov, Deputy Director of the External Relations Department at the Volga-Dnepr Group and member of the official Russian air traffic rights delegation in an attempt to create a positive working atmosphere. However, when looking behind the diplomatic curtain, an issue becomes visible, bugging the Russian delegation members: the stopping of ATRAN cargo flights between Munich and Liege operated five times weekly with B737Fs by the Volga-Dnepr subsidiary on behalf of TNT Express. ATRAN is a Moscow-based member of the Volga-Dnepr Group, operating on regional routes thus complementing ABC’s intercontinental network.
Asked about Volga-Dnepr Group’s expectations with regards to the imminent round of air traffic negotiations with their German counterparts a Russian representative stated that “we simply want to get what we were promised and hope that both sides  will come to terms and normalize relations.” 

Volga-Dnepr Group’s Oleg Demidov is a member of the Russian delegation.
Volga-Dnepr Group’s Oleg Demidov is a member of the Russian delegation.

It takes two to tango
Faced with the positions of their counterparts, the German side officially refused to comment on the situation, avoiding throwing additional oil on the fire and to heat up the conflict even further prior to the negotiations taking off. Between the lines, however, leading industry players point out that it was Russia who violated air traffic agreements in the first place. Done so by Moscow’s Transport Ministry end of March (change to summer schedule) by denying Lufthansa Cargo three weekly Boeing 777 freighter flights between Frankfurt and Beijing via Siberia. These overflight permissions, claim the Germans, LH Cargo had applied for and publicly announced at a very early stage, are covered by the existing air traffic agreement. Against this background, “we addressed leading customers and started marketing our capacity on this route,” said an LHC speaker. He added to this that his company was surprised by the fact that the Russian regulator did not respond to the overflight application. “They just remained silent, without informing us about their intentions,” the LH Cargo speaker wonders. So lacking Moscow’s official okay, LH Cargo was forced to scrap their plans to operate Beijing flights on the Siberian route, shortly before the first freighter flight was scheduled to take off.  
In the meantime, the cargo carrier elaborated an alternative Beijing route south of Russia, not crossing the huge country’s boundaries. But the flying distance is longer thus more fuel consuming, thinning out profits and upping greenhouse gas emissions.

AeroLogic fights for scheduled rights
Apart from LH Cargo, Russia’s air traffic policy is questioned by cargo carrier AeroLogic. As an outcome of the negotiations held between both sides in January of 2014, AeroLogic was conceded the designation as a second German cargo carrier, next to LH Cargo. This designation is a precondition for obtaining scheduled traffic rights. However, the deal sealed in early 2014 between the Russian and the German delegations is still pending final approval by the Russians, more than 2.5 years after both sides signed the paper at their meeting on traffic rights.
In view of this policy of playing deaf, AeroLogic would have good reasons to demand getting what they were originally promised. For the time being, however, the freight carrier can operate its 22 weekly flights across Siberia only as individual charters, which have to be permitted at short intervals by the Russian regulator. The problem is that these charters can be rejected by Moscow on short notice, turning them eventually into political pawns. In contrast, scheduled services, once conceded by the officials, would provide much more planning security.
Therefore, both sides will have a lot to discuss when meeting in Moscow during the next three days.

Divergent interests
The main aim of Russian cargo carrier’s is to obtain more Fifth Freedom Rights for flights out of Germany, predominantly ABC and its smaller sister ATRAN. While LH Cargo expects to obtain the okay for their Beijing flights and AeroLogic to be admitted the status as second German cargo carrier as door opener for operating line-haul flights between Europe and Far East, crossing Siberian territory.
For both sides a lot is at stake. Without a give-and-take attitude, it will be difficult to reach an acceptable compromise. It could be complicated by a tougher stance taken by the German government in air traffic matters lately. “The time where we conceded advanced traffic outlays as done in the past is over,” declared Berlin’s Traffic Minister Alexander Dobrindt only days ago.

Heiner Siegmund

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