Scott Kirby takes issue with use of Russian Airspace, but continues partnership with Emirates using said airspace

American carriers have repeatedly used airline lobbying groups to make some tall claims to push their agenda. Back in the day, in 2015, they made a lofty claim that Middle Eastern Carriers such as Emirates, Etihad and Qatar had an unfair advantage because of their state-owned stature. In 2020, American Airlines and Qatar Airways sewed up a Strategic Partnership; in 2022, United partnered with Emirates. So, in five years, their doubts withered away, and the opportunism was given in to make a new partnership which made them both money (US and Middle-Eastern carriers).

United’s Scott Kirby takes offence with access to Russian airspace.

United’s CEO, Scott Kirby, who moved to United from American Airlines a few years ago, and is an aviation executive who I generally have a lot of respect for, made an off-the-cuff statement at the recently concluded IATA AGM earlier this week in Istanbul that had me a bit puzzled with his stance.

He told media persons present at the IATA AGM 2023,

I worry when airlines are flying over Russia and they have American citizens onboard.

When planes fly over Russia, you use Russian airports as a place to divert airplanes. If there’s a mechanical issue or a medical issue, you land in Russia. What’s going to happen if an airline lands in Russia with some prominent U.S. citizens on board? That is a crisis in the making, and I think we should solve it before the crisis happens.

And as if on cue, an Air India aircraft flying from Delhi to San Francisco had to divert in Russia. Air India is organising relief flights at the moment.

United has much to lose in this case because of the ban that American carriers have to fly over Russian Airspace for now. India is a market on growth, the most populous country in the world and almost everyone in the aviation business wants access to India. United has had to reduce flights to India and only operates a Newark – Delhi – Newark flight because they do not have the equipment to operate more flights, such as from Chicago to India. Additionally, while the American carriers used to fly over Russia for years, they were blocked from using airspace at the start of the war. American Airlines also just operates on the Delhi – New York JFK route.

While Kirby was sufficiently vague about not taking names in the comments, he was worried about the US – India business, as in the next breath, he mentioned that the overflying ban is affecting United’s India services. Kirby said,

It’s clearly a big impact to us. Pre-pandemic, we were almost going to five flights a day between the US and India, for example, and now we fly one, and it’s an extra two hours. We literally can’t fly the other four routes, even when taking extra time. That’s disappointing, but that’s part of being the largest airline in the world and being the flag carrier the United States.

On the other hand, the Indian political dispensation has not placed any such rules on the Indian carriers and not on the American carriers. India and the US have an Open Skies agreement, and Air India has been operating flights to the US since 1960, while American carriers have come and gone from the market. So, Air India, at the moment, operates non-stop flights between India and New York, Washington DC, Newark, Chicago and San Francisco, and is the only carrier which has extensive connectivity between the US and India.

a map of the earth

Air India’s American Services / Map via

As much as the customer experience on these non-stop flights is sub-par in many cases when flights are operated with Air India’s older equipment, the older folk still prefer to fly with Air India because of the non-stop nature of the flights. Remember, there is a strong Indian diaspora in the US, and the two significant democracies are involved in trade and a tonne of relationships as well. So, non-stop connectivity remains essential, which only Air India is able to provide at the moment at scale.

Essentially, Kirby wants curbs on Indian carriers so that, if he can’t, no one else should have it as well, and the customer should suffer in the process, arguably.

Kirby continues to keep the partnership with Emirates.

While Kirby made a comment out of the goodness of his heart and having fear for the American citizen, he had no such words for his new best friends at Emirates, who have also been using Russian airspace and operating all their west coast flights via Russian Airspace. In fact, at the time I write this, three Emirates flights are cruising towards the US after having flown through Russia. Oops. United continues to partner with Emirates, which operates the flights.

a map of the world a map of the world a map of the world

Emirates and United recently sewed up a new deal where United Airlines and Emirates have their code on each others’ routes, a move rejected under current India – Dubai bilateral agreements.

a group of people standing on a stage

UAL and Emirates announcement at Dulles International Airport in Dulles, VA on September 14, 2022. Credit: Chris Kleponis

It amuses me no end that Scott Kirby felt the need to advise the US Government that there should be a level playing field but did not offer the same comment in the context of the US airlines’ partner and friend Emirates, which also uses the same airspace. Was it a minor detail or just a comment of convenience?


United CEO Scott Kirby felt the need to make a media comment at the IATA AGM about the safety of the US Citizens being flown over Russian Airspace. However, he kept the partnership with Emirates signed under his leadership just a few months ago. On the other hand, he asks for a level playing field.

What do you think of Kirby’s comments on the use of Russian Airspace?

Liked our articles and our efforts? Please pay an amount you are comfortable with; an amount you believe is the fair price for the content you have consumed. Please enter an amount in the box below and click on the button to pay; you can use Netbanking, Debit/Credit Cards, UPI, QR codes, or any Wallet to pay. Every contribution helps cover the cost of the content generated for your benefit.

(Important: to receive confirmation and details of your transaction, please enter a valid email address in the pop-up form that will appear after you click the ‘Pay Now’ button. For international transactions, use Paypal to process the transaction.)

We are not putting our articles behind any paywall where you are asked to pay before you read an article. We are asking you to pay after you have read the article if you are satisfied with the quality and our efforts.

About Ajay

Ajay Awtaney is the Founder and Editor of Live From A Lounge (LFAL), a pioneering digital platform renowned for publishing news and views about aviation, hotels, passenger experience, loyalty programs, travel trends and frequent travel tips for the Global Indian. He is considered the Indian authority on business travel, luxury travel, frequent flyer miles, loyalty credit cards and travel for Indians around the globe. Ajay is a frequent contributor and commentator on the media as well, including ET Now, BBC, CNBC TV18, NDTV, Conde Nast Traveller and many other outlets.

More articles by Ajay »


  1. United is not the largest airline in the world. They are #3 after American and Delta and they are slipping into 4th place after Southwest. And they are not “The flag carrier of the USA”. But he has to tell himself that in order to be able to sleep at night.

  2. Very disingenuous remark made by Mr Kirby..

    Does he suggest that American citizens don’t travel on Emirates ?

    And if there is an emergency situation which necessitates an EK flight landing in Russia with US citizens onboard, is that not a concern for him ?

    It seems that there is some other motive behind his statements..

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *