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21 June 2023

Kazakhstan is in the Cockpit as the Middle Corridor Takes Flight

The Middle Corridor trade route has been of great geopolitical importance since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—not just over land, but in the sky too. Kazakhstan hopes to capitalize on this potential for increased air traffic and become a new transport hub between East and West.

Kazakhstan is in the Cockpit as the Middle Corridor Takes Flight

Image: Aureliy/Shutterstock

Much ink has already been spilled about the emergence and importance of the Middle Corridor trade route linking China and Europe via Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the Black Sea. A critical overland trade route in a time when trade via the Northern Corridor through sanction-hit Russia is severely hindered, developing the Middle Corridor as a viable alternative to the Northern Corridor is a global undertaking with enormous geopolitical implications. 

But the Middle Corridor is taking shape not only over land but in the air too. In the first week of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, air traffic over Kazakhstan tripled as Russia closed its airspace to European airlines in response to almost all European countries closing their airspace to Russian airlines. This has forced European airlines flying between Europe and the Far East to follow almost precisely the same route as the Middle Corridor, only this time at 35,000 feet.

Little demonstrates the headache that the closure of Russian airspace has caused European airlines more than the plight of the Finnish national carrier, Finnair. Before 24 February 2022, Finnair took advantage of Finland’s position on the most direct route between Western Europe and the Far East, offering indirect flights at more competitive prices than direct flights operated by their rivals.

The closure of Russian airspace to Finnair sent shares in the airline down over 20% and put this pillar of their business model under considerable strain. Routes were cut, and revenues were hit as the length of Helsinki-Asia flights increased by 10-40%, a situation further exacerbated by record-high jet fuel prices. Fast-forward to 2023, Finnair is surviving the closure of Russian airspace thanks to increased demand on routes to China and the U.S., but “significant uncertainty” persists in their operating environment.