Air India chief defends paying Kremlin millions to keep flying over Russia
Air India has defended paying the Kremlin millions to fly over Russian airspace as it prepares to ramp up its UK operations.
Despite the Kremlin's war on Ukraine, Campbell Wilson, chief executive, said Air India was open to flying over Russia to UK and US destinations “if that’s the way the winds are blowing and it is most economical”.
Doing so could lead to millions of pounds being handed to the Kremlin in so-called overflight charges. Prior to the pandemic, Russia generated $1.7bn (£1.3bn) from overflight charges each year.
Mr Wilson told the Telegraph: “You guys [the UK] are buying gas. You guys are buying oil. How much investment from the Russian diaspora do you have in Kensington and other places?
“The whole principle of if Country A and Country B are having a conflict, and then Country A insists country C has to do X, Y and Z. That’s a precedent that I think we all need to be careful of.”
The UK has banned imports of Russian oil and gas. Ministers have also introduced new legislation in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine which requires foreign companies holding UK property to identify their beneficial owners in a public register.
Mr Wilson added: “I absolutely don't sanction or condone or support the conflict. But aviation is probably the biggest enabler of global peace and connectivity because it brings people together, makes cultures mix, and reduces just the natural us versus them nature of humanity.
“And if we constrain that, is that a negative or positive? I think it's a clear negative.”
It comes as Air India prepares a major expansion to rival the likes of British Airways and Emirates.
The company, which is India's flag carrier, is funded by a joint venture between Tata, the owner of Jaguar Land Rover and Tata Steel, and Singapore Airlines.
The airline has already announced one of the largest aircraft orders in history, with plans to buy 470 planes from Boeing and Airbus to revitalise its fleet.
Britain is Air India’s second-biggest international market after North America. Mr Wilson said Air India would begin flying from Gatwick as well as Heathrow.
Most Western airlines have halted flying over Russia, Belarus and Ukraine over safety fears and financial sanctions that prevent funding the war against Ukraine.
Sir Richard Branson last November backed a ban for Chinese airlines that arrive in Britain after travelling over Russian airspace.
Chinese commercial carriers have not been landing in the UK until recently because of Beijing’s zero-Covid policy.
Like China, India has maintained diplomatic relations with Moscow despite international outcry against Mr Putin’s war in Ukraine.
Mr Wilson added: “If we prevent certain carriers from overflying certain places, it doesn't necessarily stop people moving. It just changes where they're moving through. And that is putting a thumb on the scale of competition. And is that the right thing to do? Because then you are going to get perverse outcomes.
“You're going to get more circuitous routings and therefore more emissions. You're getting higher prices. You're going to get carriers [prices] artificially inflated, you're going to get carriers artificially deflated.”