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Sanctions mean it’s back to the USSR for Russian aviation

Russia used to be tightly integrated into the global aviation industry — the invasion of Ukraine changed all that.

Russian aviation will “most certainly shrink,” said Kay Neufeld, the head of forecasting at the Centre for Economics and Business Research in the U.K. 

Before the invasion, Aeroflot flew routes around the world, Russian holidaymakers took charter flights to sunny destinations, Russian airlines bought the vast majority of their aircraft from Western planemakers or leased them from Irish companies, and Moscow’s airports were among the busiest in the world, while Russian skies were filled with airliners on long-haul flights between Europe and Asia.

It’s now very different.

The EU, U.K., U.S., Canada and many other jurisdictions have banned any Russian-owned or -registered aircraft from their skies and airports; Russia has retaliated with similar measures. That’s largely ended cross-Russia overflights, which means an end to lucrative fees that Russia used to subsidize Aeroflot. Russian airlines can now largely fly to the Gulf, Turkey and parts of Asia.

In Europe, only Serbia is still scheduling regular flights to Russia.

Boeing and Airbus, as well as aircraft engine makers, have halted the supply of parts and are no longer updating repair manuals. Boeing has suspended its pilot training in Moscow and Airbus has put on hold operations at its engineering center in the Russian capital.

The U.K. sanctions include preventing Russian aviation and space industry companies from accessing Britain’s insurance sector, a particular blow given the U.K.’s dominance of that market.

Russian carrier S7 announced Friday that it would be stopping all international routes. While flights to Russia are still being put on by Asian and Middle Eastern carriers, they could be halted if Russia can’t guarantee proper servicing at its airports, according to Volodymyr Bilotkach, a Ukrainian professor of air transport management at Singapore’s Institute of Technology. 

Of the approximately 1,000 aircraft in the fleets of Russian airlines, about half belong to leasing companies, most of them from Ireland, according to Cirum, an aviation data company. Those companies want their jets returned, but that’s impossible if they don’t leave Russia.

Russia’s Federal Air Transport Agency has advised airlines with foreign-registered aircraft to stop flying passengers and cargo from Russia, which will make it tougher for the leasing companies to recover their airplanes. There are reports in the Russian aviation press that Russian authorities are mulling nationalizing aircraft in Russia.

Russian airlines could potentially “go rogue,” according to Bilotkach. They could “simply just ignore whatever legal claims the lessors might have to that aircraft … They could say, ‘OK, those planes will keep flying on the domestic market, and if you want them, just come and get them.’”

Staying home

With foreign skies largely off limits, Russian airlines are focusing on local flights; departure and arrival data shows that most of the flights coming in and out of Moscow’s airports are domestic.

In a sense that’s a return to Cold War times, when the Soviet Union had one of the world’s largest domestic aviation sectors thanks to its vast distances, widely scattered population, and a robust aviation industry that built its own aircraft like the workhorse three-engine Tupolev Tu-154, which dominated the USSR’s skies.

But the end of communism created new airlines and revamped Aeroflot, and those carriers largely turned to Western planemakers for safer, quieter and more fuel-efficient aircraft. The Tu-154 last flew with Aeroflot in 2010; only North Korea uses a handful for passenger flights.

But that reliance on foreign manufacturers leaves Russia vulnerable.

Russia isn’t the first country to see its aviation industry targeted by sanctions. Years of U.S. sanctions prevented Iran from buying new jets, spare parts or receiving maintenance and ground services. But the country managed to keep its planes flying (albeit with a very poor safety record), using aging fleets, and in some cases, shadow companies to buy parts — creating a make-do-and-mend aviation industry that’s not dissimilar to Cuba’s car sector.

But Russia is very different from Iran — it has a sophisticated aviation industry of its own — as attested by the fighters and bombers screaming over Ukraine. It also has returned to the civilian aircraft market with the Sukhoi 100 Superjet regional jet, which accounts for about 16 percent of domestic flights, according to Cirum. The new Irkut MC-21 passenger aircraft is on the market as of this year, but it is powered with Pratt & Whitney engines.

Airbus, Boeing, Embraer, Bombardier and ATR account for 82 percent of scheduled domestic flights.

“The Russian aviation sector is fundamentally different when it comes to parts and airplanes. It is a major manufacturing force and there are many Russian-made airplanes in operation across Russia,” said Ali Dadpay, a University of Dallas professor who has written on Iran’s sanctions. “Russian airlines can use their Russian-made aircraft more extensively and rely on Russian businesses to provide technical support. The shift will mean a drop in the quality of air travel and probably technical services, however, air travel will not pause in Russia.”

The shortage of parts could impact flight safety, said Bilotkach. 

“Aircraft have to follow a fairly rigorous maintenance schedule. Spare parts have to be replaced quite regularly,” he said. Russian airlines could start running into problems “within months” if they’re not able to replace them, adding that even the Sukhoi Superjet relies on parts from foreign manufacturers.

“What I can see happening though, especially for slightly older aircraft, is Russia trying to source those spare parts through some kind of third-party providers, maybe less scrupulous people, less scrupulous companies from decommissioned aircraft and whatnot. It’s not going to be good news for aviation safety,” he said.

Some spare parts might be hard to come by, but these will be mitigated by “the overall lower demand for air travel in Russia as incomes fall,” said Neufeld. “In the longer term, we would expect to see a structural adjustment in the sector which could benefit from Russia’s large military aviation sector which could help ease skill shortages and supply some technological solutions.”

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