Russians are exploiting a loophole known as the “Serbian backdoor” to flee to Europe and circumnavigate an EU-wide ban on flights to and from Russia.
Air Serbia, which is mostly state-owned, has doubled the number of direct flights from Moscow to Belgrade to 15 a week to meet rapidly rising demand after the EU banned Russian planes and airlines from its airspace, after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Russia responded by closing its airspace to EU and UK planes.
Serbia is not a member of the EU and has refused to impose sanctions against Russia, but its planes are free to cross EU airspace. This has made the Balkan country “the only European air corridor left open to Russia”, according to travel analytics company ForwardKeys.
Airline seat capacity between Russia and Serbia increased by 50% in the first week of March compared with the week before Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, ForwardKeys said. Capacity is set to be increased further still in coming weeks, according to the company.
“What’s most notable is the speed with which Serbia has become the gateway for travel between Russia and Europe,” said Olivier Ponti, ForwardKeys’ vice-president of insights.
Russian arriving in Serbia are travelling on to Europe, with the top onward destinations being Cyprus, France, Switzerland and Italy. Russians are also travelling to the UK, Slovenia, Austria, Germany and Spain.
At the time of writing there was just one business class seat left on a flight leaving on Saturday from Moscow to Belgrade, costing £583, and no economy class seats.
• The headline and introduction of this article were amended on 11 March 2022 to remove the suggestion that only wealthy Russians were using the flights.