Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin said on Monday that Russia would use its sovereign wealth funds to finance the production of more than 600 entirely domestic passenger aircraft in the next six years. Mishustin added that “owning a modern air fleet” was essential to ensuring that the vast areas of Russian territory are interconnected.
This echoed President Putin’s assertion, made during his December televised “Direct Line” Q&A session: “We need to develop our own aircraft production… and we plan to make more than 1,000 of our own airplanes by 2030.”
With what has been happening to Russia’s commercial airline industry since the full-scale invasion, this can’t come a moment too soon. Ukraine’s November hack of the records of Russia’s Federal Air Transport Agency, Rosaviatsiya “showed an industry on the verge of collapse.”
Events over the last month or so indicate that the parlous state of its commercial operators continues to worsen and that the Putin/Mishustin plan may be too little, too late.
Yet more safety incidents
Since the turn of the year there have been at least a dozen reports of serious safety-related incidents involving foreign commercial aircraft operated by Russian airlines. Some of them resulted in the grounding of aircraft, whereas the more serious incidents occurred during flight.
On Jan. 12 alone, Pobeda, the ultra-low-cost subsidiary of Aeroflot suffered three separate episodes, according to reports on the Telegram channel of the “Aviatorschina” news site.
In the early evening an emergency was declared at Cheboksary airport after a Pobeda Boeing 737-800 NG arriving from Moscow reported that the main landing gear had caught fire.
A second incident on the same evening involved Pobeda’s Moscow-Barnaul flight when, while flying over Omsk, the crew reported failures in its speed trim, automatic landing and pitch director systems, resulting in an emergency landing at Novosibirsk.
The third incident occurred on the Pobeda flight from Moscow to Ufa, when the smell of burning wiring was detected. While the plane managed to land safely in Ufa, the aircraft was delayed on its return leg.
On Jan. 8, eight Aeroflot planes had reportedly broken down in the preceding five weeks. On Tuesday Jan. 16 the Novosibirsk Transport Prosecutor’s Office said it had initiated an investigation into the circumstances of the incidents.
At the same time, the company’s pilots had complained about the condition of the runways at some of the country’s airports after several instances of aircraft suffering “runway excursions,” a euphemism for sliding from the trackway. The latest such incident was yesterday when a Russian Post Tupolev Tu-204C skidded off the runway in Yakutia.
This led to Aeroflot’s director of operations, Igor Burykin, issuing an instruction for pilots to report runway conditions at all airports, but to pay particular attention at the airfields of Khabarovsk, Ufa, Khanty-Mansiysk and Chelyabinsk.
Early on Monday a Yamal Airlines Bombardier CRJ200LR regional aircraft, flying from Gorno-Altaisk to Salekhard, made an emergency landing at Novosibirsk’s Tolmachevo airport after an unspecified technical malfunction. The issue was serious enough for the West Siberian transport prosecutor’s office to ground the aircraft and initiate an investigation.
That evening it became known that an Airbus A321 operated by Ural Airlines had twice tried to take off for its flight from Yekaterinburg to Sochi, but both times had to abort when the port side engine failed to go into take-off mode, causing the aircraft to become unstable. Russia’s State Aviation Administration has begun an investigation into poorly executed maintenance procedures, which led to a defect in the engine’s fuel system.
In total, between January and November last year, Russian carriers reported over 650 air incidents, 60 percent of which involved aircraft and engine failures, more than 180 of these occurred while in flight. This represents a threefold increase on the average number of defects reported by Russian airlines during the five-year period from 2018 to 2022.
Airline lays off aircrew
On Sunday, Russia’s S7 airline, the largest privately owned carrier announced that it was making a number of Moscow-based flight crews and office workers redundant, according to the Kommersant news site.
The decision was made because the flight program from the capital’s airports had to be cut as a result of S7’s inability to adequately maintain its fleet of mainly Airbus A320 and A321neo aircraft due to sanctions. Some estimates suggest that around 20 percent of its 100 aircraft fleet are grounded.
This decision will affect around 15 percent of its Moscow staff, in turn almost 10 percent of all S7 employees. S7 is also planning to increase its Novosibirsk and Irkutsk bases and has offered to redeploy some of its Moscow staff. In the case of pilots this would entail a need to retrain on the Brazilian Embraer 170 regional aircraft, which is the main aircraft used on these routes.
S7 has also supplied air crews to other airlines, including the UAE-based Air Arabia airline where it has negotiated a fixed-term contract for the supply of about 20 pilots. Aeroflot and Pobeda have offered to employ some of S7’s flight attendants, which would mean they would have to change their places of residence in order to shorten their commute to work.
Closing-off flights to Egypt
The Russian news site Izvestia reported on Monday that Rosaviatsiya had informed Aeroflot and Rossiya airlines to suspend using 27 specific aircraft, which normally operate on flights to Egypt, as there was a danger these aircraft would be impounded.
The aircraft concerned – 15 Airbus A320/A321/A350 planes, and 12 Boeing 777/737 planes – had been leased, along with 10 other aircraft by an Ireland-based subsidiary of Russia’s State Transport Leasing Company (GTLK) – GTLK Europe. GTLK is wholly owned by the Russian government, represented by the ministries of finance and transport.
Following the imposition of sanctions against Russia, GTLK Europe was declared bankrupt following an application by four creditors who claimed they were owed more than €162.5 ($177) million for the lease of the 37 aircraft.
In November the Irish Times reported that the liquidators of the subsidiary had taken out legal proceedings against GTLK Russia after it attempted to register itself as the legal owners of the aircraft.
In December the Irish High Court ruled in favor of the liquidators and ruled that GTLK should return the aircraft, which are all warehoused in Russia, to their rightful owners.
Egypt remains a highly popular destination for Russian vacationers and, according to the Izvestia report, Rosaviatsiya has been warned that the Egyptian authorities have indicated they may be ready to take action based on the Irish court’s ruling.
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