What Are Overflight Fees & Why Do They Matter?

In the same manner that you might have to pay a ‘toll’ or fee to use a particular highway, countries charge fees to airlines to use their airspace. Whether it’s flying in, out, or through such airspace, an ‘overflight fee’ is charged. So with a variety of aircraft and routes, how are overflight fees calculated? And how does this affect your airfare? Let’s find out.

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Overflight fees affect all airlines – moreso for long-distances traveled. Photo: Tom Boon / Simple Flying

It goes without saying that it costs airlines money to fly their aircraft. But it also costs money to monitor and manage the airspace above to ensure safe and ‘orderly’ travel in the skies. Using Canada’s air navigation service provider, NAV Canada, as an example, the following services are provided to aircraft using Canadian airspace:

  • Air traffic control at busy airports, providing landing and take-off clearances and guidance in maintaining safe separation from other aircraft.
  • Giving pilots essential aeronautical information concerning airspace, facilities, procedures, and hazards.
  • Interpreting weather data to provide in-depth interpretive briefings and en route advisories
  • Providing timely reports on missing or overdue flights

How overflight fees are calculated

Overflight fees can be found in The International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) Policies on Charges for Airports and Air Navigation Services. The document contains recommendations and conclusions from its “continuing study of charges in relation to the economic situation of airports and air navigation services provided for international civil aviation.”

The extent and performance of the air transport network speaks for itself in terms how well the world works together and complies with the standards and recommendations countries agree to through ICAO. -ICAO Spokesperson

In Canada, overflight fees are calculated using a combination of weight and distance. The official equation is unit rate (R) multiplied by weight factor (W), multiplied by the distance (D), or RxWxD in short.

The unit rate varies depending on whether the aircraft is Canadian-registered or foreign, as well as turboprop or jet-propelled. Fees also change depending on if it is an oceanic flight. This is a huge simplification, but it demonstrates the complexity in calculating overflight fees.

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A sample overflight fee calculated for a 747-400 flying between Seattle and London, moving through Canadian airspace. Amounts expressed in Canadian dollars. Photo: NAV Canada

In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration sets overflight fee rates and it seems to be far simpler than its Canadian counterpart. There are only two different rates for flying through US-controlled airspace. Flying over US land, the “en-route” rate is $61.75 per 100 nautical miles. However, when flying over ocean monitored by the FAA, that rate drops down to $26.51 per 100 nautical miles.

Some countries, mainly smaller ones, charge a flat fee for flying through. For example, Afghanistan assesses a flat overflight fee of $950. China requires an overflight permit – our research shows this costing $500. In addition to this, there is an air navigation fee calculated by distance. A 2012 article had indicated the cost was $0.44 per kilometer at the time.

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Airlines like United would need to fly over Canada for flights out of San Francisco, Denver, and Houston to European cities like London, Paris, and many more. Photo: United Airlines

Who profits the most from overflight fees?

There are several factors that determine which countries profit the most from overflight fees. They include:

  • Location
  • Size of the country (if rates are calculated by distance)
  • And of course, the actual rates set in conjunction with the above two factors

Two countries that collect a good sum of overflight fees are Canada and Russia. For example, the most efficient routing to connect many major American cities to major European cities is through Canadian airspace. This means an aircraft flying from Seattle to London will spend nearly half its time in the air flying over Canada before continuing on over Greenland, Iceland, and the UK.

Seeing as many major American cities (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth) operate services to Europe through Canadian airspace, Canada’s air navigation services provider is able to bring in revenue from these flights as they pass through.

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A flight from Seattle to London would fly over much of Canada. Photo: Great Circle Mapper

Russia’s location and size is also advantageous for collecting overflight fees. This is because of the amount of traffic between Europe and East Asia. London to Tokyo, Paris to Seoul, and Amsterdam to Hong Kong are just a few flight-examples that require significant time flying over Russia, passing through what is known as the “Trans-Siberian Corridor.”

 

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A flight from London to Tokyo spends a lot of time flying over Russia. Photo: Great Circle Mapper

The political power of airspace

As a slight aside, sometimes airspace control is less about the money and more about politics. In fact, some countries would be willing to forego additional overflight revenue in favor of expressing favoritism to select countries, while creating a distance with others.

According to the South China Morning Post, this can cause prices and routes to fluctuate as different airlines are subject to different policies. Unfortunately, travelers ultimately pay the cost through their airfare and perhaps additional flight time.

Here are a few examples of messy politics in the air:

  • Russia’s standard practice is to allow only one airline per country to fly through its airspace. However, some exceptions exist (such as UK’s British Airways and Virgin Atlantic). Since SAS is the sole “Scandinavian” airline with rights (representing Sweden, Norway, and Denmark), Norwegian Air is blocked out for now. Thus Norwegian Air only flies to Southeast Asian destinations that don’t require passage through Russia.
  • The small Middle Eastern nation of Qatar has been dealing with a blockade from its Gulf neighbors since 2017. This diplomatic row has meant that Qatar Airways is unable to fly through Saudi Arabian airspace. As a result, all flights from Doha to destinations on the African continent take longer and are less efficient as they skirt around the Arabian Peninsula.
  • Finally, with Taiwan considered a ‘renegade province’ by China, its airlines do not have overflight rights through Chinese airspace. This means flights from Taiwan to Europe must inefficiently go around – either going ‘below’ China through South Asia, or ‘above’ through Russia.
Taiwanese airlines such as China Airlines are prohibited from flying through Chinese airspace. Photo: Airbus

“States embark on international cooperation and standardization in air transport because it’s of their clear mutual benefit to do so. Everybody wins when we’re better connected to one another.” -ICAO spokesperson

Hopefully, this gives you a better understanding of overflight fees and how they are calculated. These fees matter as they will impact an aircraft’s bottom line should a country decide to raise its rates. This is especially true given the problematic situation airlines find themselves in during this health crisis.

Did we miss anything about overflight fees? Let us know by leaving a comment.

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