Wealthy Russians are exploiting a loophole known as the “Serbian backdoor” to flee to Europe and circumvent an EU-wide ban on flights to and from Russia.
Mainly state-owned Air Serbia doubled the number of direct flights from Moscow to Belgrade to 15 per week to meet growing demand after the EU banned Russian planes and airlines from its airspace , after the invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin. Russia responded by closing its airspace to EU and UK planes.
Serbia is not an EU member and has refused to impose sanctions on Russia, but its planes are free to fly through EU airspace. This has made the Balkan country “the only European air corridor remaining open to Russia”, according to travel analytics firm ForwardKeys.
Airline seat capacity between Russia and Serbia increased by 50% in the first week of March compared to the week before Russian tanks arrived in Ukraine, ForwardKeys said. Capacity is expected to be further increased in the coming weeks, according to the company.
“What is most remarkable is how quickly Serbia has become the gateway for travel between Russia and Europe,” said Olivier Ponti, vice president of information at ForwardKeys.
Russians arriving in Serbia head for Europe, with the main destinations being Cyprus, France, Switzerland and Italy. Russians also visit the UK, Slovenia, Austria, Germany and Spain.
At the time of writing, there was only one business class seat left on a flight from Moscow to Belgrade on Saturday, costing £583, and no economy class seats.