How Nuclear Conflict Could Halt Global Air Traffic

Closed Russian airspace isn’t the biggest threat to global aviation—it’s the risk of nuclear weapons use grounding all commercial planes.

Braw-Elisabeth-foreign-policy-columnist3
Braw-Elisabeth-foreign-policy-columnist3
Elisabeth Braw
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
A picture taken on March 24, 2020, shows grounded Air France airplanes at the Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport north of Paris, on the eight day of a lockdown aimed at curbing the spread of the COVID-19.
A picture taken on March 24, 2020, shows grounded Air France airplanes at the Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport north of Paris, on the eight day of a lockdown aimed at curbing the spread of the COVID-19.
A picture taken on March 24, 2020, shows grounded Air France airplanes at the Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport north of Paris, on the eight day of a lockdown aimed at curbing the spread of the COVID-19. THOMAS SAMSON/AFP via Getty Images

So long, Virgin Atlantic. After three decades of flying between its London hub and Hong Kong, the airline is canceling the route. The decision is not a political statement; it’s a reflection of geopolitics. Russia’s cancellation of overflight rights for Western airlines has added several hours to the already long flying time between Europe and the Far East. Other flights are likely to join Virgin Atlantic’s London-Hong Kong route in biting the dust. But the suddenly real prospect of a Russian nuclear attack on Ukraine is adding a new and far more devastating risk: a complete standstill in global air travel.

Ever since the Cold War, aviation insurance has excluded nuclear war. That means if Russia deploys a so-called mini nuke against Ukraine, global aviation risks being grounded.

“Significant operational complexities due to the ongoing Russian airspace closure have contributed to the commercial decision not to resume flights in March 2023 as planned,” Virgin Atlantic explained in an Oct. 5 statement announcing the London-Hong Kong route’s demise. It was a remarkably bland summary of the turbulence behind the decision.

So long, Virgin Atlantic. After three decades of flying between its London hub and Hong Kong, the airline is canceling the route. The decision is not a political statement; it’s a reflection of geopolitics. Russia’s cancellation of overflight rights for Western airlines has added several hours to the already long flying time between Europe and the Far East. Other flights are likely to join Virgin Atlantic’s London-Hong Kong route in biting the dust. But the suddenly real prospect of a Russian nuclear attack on Ukraine is adding a new and far more devastating risk: a complete standstill in global air travel.

Ever since the Cold War, aviation insurance has excluded nuclear war. That means if Russia deploys a so-called mini nuke against Ukraine, global aviation risks being grounded.

“Significant operational complexities due to the ongoing Russian airspace closure have contributed to the commercial decision not to resume flights in March 2023 as planned,” Virgin Atlantic explained in an Oct. 5 statement announcing the London-Hong Kong route’s demise. It was a remarkably bland summary of the turbulence behind the decision.

The “operational complexities” suddenly imposed on Western airlines when Russia closed its airspace to them on Feb. 28 are enormous. No longer being able to fly through Russian airspace means airlines have to divert their planes either northward to the North Pole and Alaska or southward toward the Middle East and Central Asia, and that means longer flying times.

On March 9, less than two weeks after Russia’s overflight ban, Finnair demonstrated that the polar route could work when it premiered its flagship Helsinki-Tokyo flight. Flight AY073 left Helsinki and steered its course toward Norway’s Svalbard islands and the North Pole, then continued toward Alaska and across the Bering Sea and the North Pacific Ocean toward Japan. It was a smooth flight but one that lasted nearly 13 hours, some 3.5 hours more than it used to. Despite skilled flying by Capt. Kari Holopainen, two further captains and a fourth pilot, that meant a lot of stiff limbs.

All airlines’ insurance policies have exclusions for war and nuclear attacks.

But passenger discomfort is far from the only complication facing Western airlines on their popular long-haul routes between Europe and East Asia as well as the U.S. East Coast and destinations in, say, India. It’s Europe to East Asia flights, which used to traverse most of Russia, that face the biggest hurdles. When a flight has to arrive three or four hours later than it used to, that means its usual return flight may no longer be possible.

That, in turn, means that the aircraft may have to spend the night at the airport, which incurs parking fees and more hours of the aircraft not bringing in income. Then there’s the additional fuel. “Of course we can carry less cargo if the aircraft is weighed down with fuel, and this also increases fuel burn,” a senior European aviation executive told FP. “So these routes will definitely cost more to run and will require customers to dig deeper into their pockets than they are used to.” Fuel costs are, of course, up too.

The executive’s airline and lots of other airlines are currently making plans for the reopening of their routes to China and Japan. However, the executive told FP: “As we get closer to the date, colleagues will have to make some tough calls. As ever, if the route is not financially viable or the company can make more money by flying the aircraft on other routes, then we’re unlikely to follow through.”

Chinese airlines, meanwhile, have reopened Europe-China routes suspended during COVID-19—an easy choice since they’re not covered by Russia’s overflight bans. And Middle Eastern carriers, whose routes to the Far East were not going through Russia anyway, will similarly benefit. They’ve already been positioning airports—such as in Doha and Dubai—as global hubs and will now be able to intensify those efforts by pointing to those hubs as convenient stopovers.

But now, airlines also face a much more devastating risk: the risk of a Russian nuclear attack against Ukraine. All airlines’ insurance policies have exclusions for war and nuclear attacks. This nuclear exclusion clause has been around since the Cold War and has fortunately never had to be invoked. But because it was written during the Cold War, it foresees a nuclear attack leading to an all-out nuclear war, in which all insurance would be canceled simply because the world would face total destruction.

Now, though, the world is facing the prospect of Russia using a battlefield nuclear weapon against Ukraine. Russia has for several years reportedly been developing a new generation of battlefield nuclear weapons, which are also known as low-yield nuclear weapons and are less powerful than traditional ones. One Russian low-yield nuclear weapon, depending on how it is used, could kill somewhere between zero and tens of thousands of people. (They’re sometimes also referred to as tactical nuclear weapons.)

Although these weapons would cause devastation in the affected area, the harm would be nothing like Cold War-style nuclear Armageddon. But because insurance policies’ nuclear exclusions haven’t had to be tested by any such attacks—and long predate the current discussion about Russia’s so-called escalate-to-deescalate strategy—they simply stipulate that a nuclear attack would cause the insurance to be canceled.

That means if Russia uses a battlefield nuclear weapon against Ukraine, the world’s airlines will stop flying. “What we’re facing now is serious, but it’s not a nuclear Holocaust,” an executive who represents airlines vis-a-vis their insurers told FP. “Now insurers are discussing what to do in case of tactical nuclear attack. We have to discuss what the nuclear event is that will cancel aviation insurance. For now, we tell clients, ‘You have this clause, and insurers may apply it.’”

Now airlines and their insurers are urgently trying to redefine nuclear conflict. Should hull insurance policies include different categories of nuclear attacks: limited ones and all-out war?

To be sure, “people’s first concern in case of a nuclear attack is not insurance; it’s whether they’ll be vaporized,” said Neil Roberts, head of marine and aviation at Lloyd’s Market Association, which represents insurance underwriters. But because aviation is a crucial carrier of both cargo and people, a sudden suspension of flights around the world would wreak havoc on daily life. “The balance of intelligence-thinking is that it would be counterproductive for Russia to use battlefield nukes, and that if [Russian President Vladimir] Putin were to do it, he’d go for an unpopulated area like a forest rather than a city,” Roberts added. “But the automatic cancellation would kick in nonetheless.”

Now airlines and their insurers are urgently trying to redefine nuclear conflict. Should hull insurance policies include different categories of nuclear attacks: limited ones and all-out war? What if Putin or another leader were to use not one but two—or 10—battlefield nuclear weapons? Is that an isolated event or more like nuclear war? Today’s geopolitical environment is far more complex than that of the Cold War.

Insurers and airlines have, in fact, been racking their brains over the prospect of novel nuclear conflicts for the past few years. “We’ve done a lot of thinking about this because of Syria, where official nuclear weapons states have been involved on opposing sides,” Roberts told FP. “We’ve been thinking about what would trigger the clause and how reinstatement might work.” The matter has become rather more urgent with the appointment of Gen. Sergei Surovikin—who, as commander of Russia’s forces in Syria, visited destruction on that country—as war commander this month.

“We’re working behind the scenes to bring clarity to it,” Roberts said. Let’s hope the underwriters and the airlines succeed. A nuclear attack anywhere would be dreadful. But nobody would wish to give Putin the satisfaction of, through one such move, also being able to wreak havoc on global transportation.

Elisabeth Braw is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw

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