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There are over 4,000 international airspace agreements – here’s how they affect air traffic routes

Article published
28.03.2019 kl 09:09
Departing airplane on a sky.
People & Aviation
Do you know how the agreement between Finland and Russia affect Finnair’s Asian routes? We found out how the aviation industry’s international agreements affect the rules of air traffic.

Have you ever wondered how the flight routes from city to city are planned? The most practical option would seem to be to take the shortest possible route from the starting point to the endpoint.

However, this is not always possible since there are many other things to take into consideration than just the most convenient route when planning flight routes. Airspace legislation and bilateral agreements are significant factors.

States determine the use of their airspace

“International air traffic is mainly based on state agreements. A legal basis for traffic is the national sovereignty of the states that is acknowledged in the Chicago Convention. It is a sort of a constitutional law for aviation,” says Mikko Huttunen, doctoral researcher from the faculty of law at the University of Lapland.

The Convention on International Civil Aviation, signed in 1944, includes almost all United Nations member states. The Convention guarantees that the states can fully determine how their airspace is used. If an aircraft from an other state flies within any state’s airspace without permission, an airspace violation occurs.

“In the Chicago negotiations for an agreement, they also drew up a contract that would have opened up the whole airspace of the world for competition. However, the states wanted to keep their own terms and authority, consequently creating a network of bilateral agreements,” says Huttunen. “There are over 4000 bilateral agreements and that makes the system quite fragmented.”

Overflight permits over Siberia behind Finnair’s growth

As the name suggests, a bilateral agreement is made between two states. In practice, the agreement is made between a national airline and the target state. An example of this is the agreement between Finland and Russia which guarantees Finnair over 80 round trip flights per week over Siberia. The Siberian overflight permits make short routes to Asia possible for Finnair, and they have contributed towards the company’s strong air traffic growth between Europe and Asia. Many European competitors don’t have such extensive flight permits for the routes across Siberia.

State interests strongly affect how routes are formed. Taking a longer way is more expensive and thus the overflight permits have an economic impact – not only for the airline paying for using the route, but also the state that governs it.

The governing state gets income for the use of their aviation services. The states can define the costs themselves.

“There are some indicators for defining the charges and it is determined, that the charges cannot be discriminative, but ultimately the state gets to decide from what services and how the payments are being collected,” says Huttunen.

When planning the flight routes, there are, of course, many other practicalities to be taken into consideration. Economic costs, airport capacity and flight slots or scheduled take off and landing times.

Common rules guarantee smooth and safe travelling

With such large growth in global air traffic, common rules and international agreements are important because they assure the safety and functionality of airspace use. In addition, they advance travelling and international trade.

Together with the Chicago Convention and bilateral agreements, the EU has its own air traffic arrangement, The European Internal Market. Using that arrangement, the EU has had the jurisdiction to create the European Common Aviation Area, which includes member states of the union and many nearby states as well. The EU has also made agreements with United States and Australia, among others. Any airline from the member states can fly to these countries.

“This is very advantageous for travelers since, like this, long-haul routes are open for competition. Inside the EU, broad traffic rights are a natural part of the union’s internal markets.”

The EU would like to rescind bilateral agreements between Russia and EU member states but for now, the overflight permits over Siberia have been granted to single states.

The EU also decides who cannot fly in the airspace of member states for security reasons.

“The EU has a blacklist of airlines that have not followed the safety standards of civil aviation efficiently enough and thus are not allowed to fly or land in the union’s area. The safety of citizens of the union is being guaranteed this way, since, with these airlines, even an overflight may be a safety risk,” says Huttunen.

Read more about safety at Finavia.