U.S. Seeks New Talks With Russia as Overflights Remain Problem

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(Bloomberg) -- The State Department wants new talks with Russia by the end of May on agreements for U.S. airlines to cross Russian airspace, with officials in Moscow holding out on at least one key route used by cargo carriers.

Russia this month agreed to renew three of four overflight routes as a deadline was about to expire. The fourth route, which runs across southern Russia, wasn’t renewed, and cargo carriers have had to use a costlier flight path as a result, said Manisha Singh, the assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs.

“The cargo carriers know that this is an impediment for them and we’re trying to resolve it as quickly as we can,” Singh said in an interview. She added that the U.S. suspects the route wasn’t renewed for unspecified technical reasons but didn’t have further details.

The U.S. wants the talks to take place in May to establish a more formal way of communicating with Russia about the issue. That would also allow discussion of broader, longer-lasting overflight agreements before the current ones expire on Oct. 28.

Soured Relations

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

With U.S.-Russia ties having soured over allegations of election meddling and the war in Syria, Singh said the U.S. is trying to figure out why Russia hasn’t renewed the cargo route and why it’s resisting longer-term agreements. Representatives from U.S. carriers, trade associations and unions met with Singh earlier this month to raise their concerns, after Russia pulled out of scheduled talks and the April 17 deadline approached.

“It’s hard to know what is motivating the circumstances,” Singh said. “We really want to give our carriers more certainty -- that’s what I will press for.” Asked if the U.S. had gotten a response yet from Russia, Singh said, “We are waiting to hear back from them.”

European and North American airlines make hundreds of trips weekly over Russia on flights to Asia. Russia has sought to use the flights, for which it charges fees, as a source of leverage over the West. It announced a review of foreign carriers’ use of Russian airspace in 2014 as part of a tit-for-tat dispute over Ukraine.

Timur Khikmatov, a spokesman for Russia’s Transportation Ministry, didn’t immediately respond to calls on his mobile phone seeking comment on Friday.

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