Why is Air India flying over Russia?

Recent news of an Air India 777 diverting to a Russian airport in Magadan has reignited the debate over Russian Airspace. According to Russia, their skies are closed to American airlines, but not those from India, China, or the Middle East. Merely one day after United CEO Scott Kirby mentioned the risk of an airplane diverting to Russia with U.S. citizens on board, an airplane diverted to Russia with U.S. citizens on board.

The flight from Delhi to San Francisco diverted to Magadan airport (north of Japan on the Sea of Okhotsk). The potential international incident was met with… well, hospitality and civility. As the ferry flight lands in San Francisco, questions now turn to repairing the 777 given sanctions on Russia. It will get fixed and the story will blow over.

But while we wait for this story to blow over, there remains a more significant question at the heart of Russia. What happens when geopolitics and ESG collide?

U.S. and European carriers are excluded from Russian airspace for… reasons. Yet, flights continue with Western airlines navigating impressive detours around Russia, further adding carbon to the atmosphere. Air India still has access to Russian Airspace, so it is afforded the luxury of optimized flight planning techniques, otherwise known as “a straight line.”

The direct comparison of two JFK-DEL flights, one by American Airlines and one by Air India, shows just how much of an advantage Air India has with access to Russian Airspace. To put the estimated 15% fuel burn reduction Air India enjoys into the carbon context, 15% represents the fuel improvements of the latest generation of aircraft.

In round 1 of ESG vs geopolitics, geopolitics wins.

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