U.S. Airlines' Russia Flyover Rights Expire as Talks Stall

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(Bloomberg) -- U.S. airlines sought the State Department’s help as agreements to cross Russian airspace expire and both sides wait on the other to set a date to resume negotiations.

Representatives from U.S. carriers, trade associations and unions met Tuesday with Manisha Singh, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs, after Russia’s Transportation Ministry pulled out of talks set for Wednesday and Thursday and asked the U.S. to suggest new dates, according to a State Department spokesperson.

The Trump administration is working to reschedule the meeting as soon as possible, said a senior State Department official, who asked not to be identified discussing private deliberations.

European and North American airlines make hundreds of trips weekly over eastern Russia, the quickest and cheapest route to East Asia. Russia has sought to use the flights as a source of leverage over the West, announcing a review of foreign carriers’ use of the airspace in 2014 as part of a tit-for-tat dispute over Ukraine.

U.S. officials are so far declining to link Russia’s decision to cancel the talks with tensions over President Vladimir Putin’s support for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and recent U.S.-led airstrikes against Assad’s chemical weapons facilities.

Despite the expiring agreement, Russia will allow flights to continue while negotiations are being arranged, Transportation Ministry spokesman Timur Khikmatov said by phone. "We asked U.S. colleagues to postpone the meeting to a different day, but still haven’t received an answer about the new timing,” he said.

Rerouting Flights

Still, U.S. carriers have warned the State Department that they might need to reroute flights and eventually start canceling some routes because of cost concerns if permissions aren’t granted. The airlines are making contingency plans if Russia doesn’t extend approvals. Longer flight routes can mean additional costs in both fuel and staffing.

“It’s in our mutual interest to resolve this issue as quickly and efficiently as possible,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said when asked about the talks. Nauert declined to provide other details.

Airlines for America, a trade group representing U.S. carriers, didn’t immediately comment when contacted by Bloomberg News.

The U.S. and Russia haven’t had a permanent framework governing overflight permissions since 2001, instead relying on a patchwork set of non-binding agreements. Russia had previously renewed those permissions every six months, but had recently begun offering renewals for shorter, more arbitrary periods depending on the airline, the U.S. official said.

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