Bloomberg: Russian airlines still fly despite sanctions

Bloomberg: Russian airlines still fly despite sanctions

Bloomberg: Russian airlines keep secrets despite sanctions

Illustration photo – Russian transport plane Ilyushin Il-112B.

Moscow – When the United States and much of Europe imposed sanctions on Russia last year for its invasion of Ukraine, civil aviation looked like a promising place to inflict the most misery on Russia. Russian airlines use aircraft mainly from Airbus and Boeing, which are banned from doing business in Russia. And more than two-fifths of these planes were owned by foreign leasing companies, which began to immediately want their assets back. But a year after the invasion began, Russian airlines continue to operate, largely by skirting the rules and using older planes for spare parts, Bloomberg reported.

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Russian airlines still operate 467 Airbus and Boeing aircraft, up from 544 a year ago, according to research firm Cirium. While Russian companies have canceled flights to the United States, Western Europe and its allies, they have boosted flights to Thailand, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and former Soviet republics such as Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. They operate about 1,100 domestic flights a day, down about 15 percent from a year ago, but a much smaller drop than Ukraine's supporters had expected after sanctions were imposed.

The resilience of the airlines shows the limited impact of the sanctions, as the industries targeted manage to find different loopholes or turn to partners that do not impose the sanctions. Although Russian production fell in three quarters, the decline was only a fraction of the collapse predicted shortly after the invasion. Among other things, also because the sharp rise in commodity prices brings more money to the country.

To keep the aviation sector afloat, the Kremlin banned airlines from returning leased planes to their owners abroad and urged them to re-register the planes in Russia. As a result, most aircraft continue to fly despite being cut off from critical software updates and regulatory-mandated maintenance required to ensure airworthiness.

Aircraft operators must adhere to a strict maintenance regime overseen by licensed engineers and inspected him national regulators. In addition to daily inspections, aircraft must undergo a more stringent inspection after about 200 years and a demanding inspection every ten years or so, when they are taken apart and thoroughly inspected.

Boeing says that since the beginning of last year, in compliance with US sanctions, it has not provided any parts, maintenance or technical support to companies in Russia. Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury said in mid-February that company data showed Russian airlines flew Airbus planes more frequently in the second half of last year than before the pandemic. According to him, the company is not in contact with Russian airlines, but Airbus has already heard that they are having problems keeping the planes in service because they are unable to replace the missing parts.

To continue operating, Russian airlines are sourcing parts from so-called friendly countries and using parts from other, older planes that are being dismantled for spare parts, Russia's civil aviation authority said. In February, he approved a contract with Dubai-based engineering firm Global Jet Technic, which he says performs routine pre-flight inspections of Airbus and Boeing aircraft operated by Russian companies.

Airlines are required to record every part they repair or replace, along with documentation of the origin of the parts used. Because Russia now operates outside of the established global regime for tracking these changes, the planes likely do not have these records detailed enough. This practically makes their possible resale impossible.

Experience from Iran shows that undocumented maintenance is not sustainable in the long term. Decades of sanctions have left Iran with outdated aircraft and a poor reputation for security. Iran's aviation industry relies on a network of middlemen who circumvent restrictions and procure parts, sometimes entire planes. Russia's situation is more complicated, however, as local airlines mostly fly newer models, says aviation consultant John Strickland.

Unlike Iran, however, Russia has a tradition of aircraft production. Russia's Aeroflot was once the largest airline in the world, and manufacturers such as Tupolev, Ilyushin and Sukhoi produced aircraft capable of carrying hundreds of passengers. Currently, Russian companies still produce more modern aircraft, but they are largely dependent on the supply of engines, on-board electronics and landing gear from the West. However, a project is already being prepared that envisages the replacement of these parts with components of Russian origin.

Another goal of the sanctions was to isolate Russia, but this goal also has ambiguous results. Russia closed its airspace to airlines from Western Europe and the USA, which now have to use other, longer and more expensive routes for flights to Asia. However, Russian airspace remains open to companies from friendly countries such as the United Arab Emirates, which have added flights. There are currently 270 international flights a day from Russian airports, up from 300 a year ago, according to Cirium.

“Sanctions are clearly not working the way the West thought, and the global aviation industry is much more leaky than anyone imagined ,” says industry consultant Richard Aboulafia. According to him, security will worsen with the extension of sanctions, but air connections with Russia will probably not be interrupted because of this.