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Op-Ed: On the Caribbean, Russian Airspace Closures

DALLAS — The ongoing closures of Russia’s airspace to airlines from 36 "unfriendly countries" and Venezuela's airspace to Argentinian carriers are the latest examples of how nations restrict their skies due to political disputes.

When Iran recently carried out a retaliatory attack on Israel, it restricted airspace in the region. The incident had significant implications for the thousands of flights that traverse the Middle East's busy airways. 

However, while the subject of this post does not consider airspace closures due to aerial warfare, it does argue that similar Cold War tactics are still at play.

The Russian airspace closure was a tit-for-tat ban after Canada and the EU closed their airspaces to Russian airlines. In a different arena, the Venezuelan airspace closure was a response to Argentina's seizure of a Venezuelan cargo plane, later decommissioned in the US.

We’ll scope the topic through the tales of three aircraft. The tactic has a long history, as demonstrated by a little-known incident between Venezuela and Cuba in the early 1960s at the height of the Cold War.

VIASA Convair CV-880. Photo: Jon Proctor/GFDL 1.2
VIASA Convair CV-880. Photo: Jon Proctor/GFDL 1.2

VIASA’s Convair 880

Following the Cuban Revolution in 1959, relations quickly soured between the new government in Havana and Venezuela's democratically elected president, Rómulo Betancourt. Fidel Castro viewed Betancourt with disdain, seeing him as too close to the United States. 

In retaliation for Venezuela's anti-communist stance, Cuba moved to destabilize its neighbor to the south, inciting armed rebellion and sabotage. Venezuela formally denounced Cuba's actions at the Organization of American States, further damaging the already strained relationship. 

In response, Cuba, with backing from the Soviet Union, took measures against Venezuelan interests, including prohibiting Venezuelan commercial and civilian aircraft from overflying Cuban airspace.

This posed a challenge for VIASA. At the time, Venezuela's flag carrier had just begun operating new narrow-body Convair 880 jet airliners between Caracas, Miami, and New York.

The detour around Cuba imposed by Havana's military and aviation authorities meant longer flight times and increased fuel consumption for VIASA's daily services to the United States. 

The Convair 880s could traverse the tiny sliver of banned Cuban airspace in just a few minutes. However, as some of the airline's pioneering pilots reported, the risk of not diverting from the historical route was considered too low to comply.

However, the Convair flew extremely fast, and the prohibited airway segment over Cuba was short. It was assessed that Cuba's antiquated MiG-15 fighters would take too long to reach the cruising altitude of the VIASA jets.

The Convair 880 was introduced into service with Delta Air Lines in May 1960. Delta used a slightly modified version, the 880-22M, which featured newer 805-3B engines. Apart from VIASA, the 880s were also utilized by several other airlines, including Cathay Pacific (CX), Japan Airlines (JL), Northeast Airlines, Swissair (SR), and TWA.

Curtiss C-46A-55-CK (YV-C-ARL, c/n 158) of RANSA (Rutas Aereas Nacionales, S.A.) at MIA in March 1962.  Photo courtesy: M. Lawrence.
Curtiss C-46A-55-CK (YV-C-ARL, c/n 158) of RANSA (Rutas Aereas Nacionales, S.A.) at MIA in March 1962.  Photo courtesy: M. Lawrence

Ransa’s Curtiss C-46

A similar tussle occurred on May 14, 1962, when a Curtiss C-46 cargo plane operated by Ransa, another Venezuelan carrier, overflew Cuba en route from Kingston, Jamaica, to Miami. 

For context, the Curtiss C-46, a low-wing, twin-engine aircraft, became familiar in South America and gained popularity in countries like Bolivia, Peru, Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. 

The C-16 was particularly favored in mountainous regions where the aircraft's ability to climb quickly and operate at high altitudes was essential. Additionally, the C-46 was utilized in dense jungle terrain where ground transportation was not feasible.

Whether the C-16’s capabilities played a factor or not, as the Ransa cargo plane crossed the island, two Cuban MiG-15s intercepted the lumbering transport and demanded that it land for inspection.

According to aviation author Alfredo Schael, the Ransa crew, surprised by the fighter jets' aggressive behavior, stood their ground and invoked their right to free passage to Miami. 

After a tense radio standoff, the MiGs abruptly broke off the encounter, leaving the C-46 to continue on its way and narrowly averting a potentially serious international incident.

Emtrasur Boeing 747-300M. Photo: Venezuelan Embassy, Belarus, via Twitter.
Emtrasur Boeing 747-300M. Photo: Venezuelan Embassy, Belarus, via Twitter

Emtrasur’s Boeing 747 Freighter

62 years later, Socialist-run Venezuela implemented a ban on aircraft originating from or bound for the now right-wing-run Argentina in response to the seizure of an Emtrasur cargo Boeing 747. The type was subsequently handed over to US authorities for reasons not pertinent here.

The Venezuelan Foreign Minister, Yván Gil, stated that the country's airspace would remain closed to Argentinian aircraft until Venezuela was compensated for the "theft" of the Venezuelan Jumbo freighter seized in Buenos Aires in 2022 and delivered to the US in February.

Venezuela and Argentina are signatories to the 1947 Convention on International Civil Aviation, also known as the Chicago Convention. This treaty obliges member states to ensure freedom of the skies and grant overflight rights, especially for non-scheduled services.

Therefore, Argentina would be well within its rights to file a formal protest over Venezuela's blanket prohibition on overflights by its airlines.

Signature de l'accord fondant l'Organisation de l'aviation civile internationale (OACI) à Chicago en 1944, avec Max Hymans à droite de l'image.. Photo: Dominique Hymans (ayant-droit de certaines archives de Max Hymans, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6221978
Signature de l'accord fondant l'Organisation de l'aviation civile internationale (OACI) à Chicago en 1944, avec Max Hymans à droite de l'image. Photo: Dominique Hymans (ayant-droit de certaines archives de Max Hymans), CC BY-SA 3.0

Chicago Convention: Article 84

If unresolved, the dispute can be referred to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) under Article 84 of the Chicago Convention. The United States and Argentina governments have raised the issue with the organization.

For now, Aerolíneas Argentinas flights that once traversed Venezuela to enter or exit the Caribbean are diverting through the territory of Guyana, resulting in slightly longer flights and higher fuel consumption. 

However, they may end up paying less in overflight fees, as Venezuela is known to impose some of the highest such charges in the region.

While the circumstances differ, using airspace closures as diplomatic arm-twisting is a common thread running from the Cold War Caribbean, Vladimir Putin's Russia, to the Leftist’s Caribbean bipolar nation that is now Venezuela.

As the skies grow increasingly congested, such restrictions are a stark reminder of how even the most arcane aspects of international aviation can be wielded as geopolitical weapons.

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