18.05.23 Sanctions Review

Flight Against Sanctions: The government is aiming to commence aircraft fleet localisation by the late 2020s, while airlines are reducing their safety standards and resorting to cannibalisation

The Russian government has pledged to provide airlines with 'fully Russian' counterparts to Boeing and Airbus by 2030, but these plans seem dubious. In the meantime, airlines are being forced to operate aircraft that they refused to return to lessors after the war began. Spare parts for these planes continue to be imported through parallel channels, yet the volumes of these only cover a small portion of those required. Due to the lack of domestic capacity and expertise, complicated maintenance tasks are being carried out in Iran, the region's worst country in terms of aviation accidents. As a result, in order to avoid a decline in passenger traffic, airlines, according to media reports, have already started lowering their safety requirements. Experts familiar with the experience of Iran believe that a reduction in the number of flights would be a better alternative.

In 2022, domestic passenger traffic decreased slightly, by only 16%, primarily due to the closure of airports in the country’s southern regions. Additionally, Russian airlines face significant challenges in procuring spare parts and maintaining their aircraft due to sanctions. According to the media, they have already had to lower flight safety requirements.

For example, 'Kommersant' has learned that inspections by Rostekhnadzor (Federal Service for Environmental, Technological and Nuclear Supervision) revealed that in 2022, over 2,000 flights were conducted by aircraft with expired parts and components. The publication 'Proekt,' after speaking with former airline employees and aviation technicians, has described a new approach to the maintenance of aircraft logbooks: defects and malfunctions that do not prevent an aircraft from completing a flight may not be recorded in the logbook to avoid grounding the aircraft. 'Proekt' cites several examples. In one case, an Aeroflot aircraft flew with malfunctioning lavatories, while another flight operated by Nordwind, a charter carrier, took off without a full set of oxygen cylinders and despite the fact that there was fuel leaking from the engine compartment of a Boeing 737 during engine startup. A former Nordwind pilot disclosed that such incidents had occurred multiple times with that aircraft, but no incidents were officially recorded.

Russian airlines can acquire spare parts in two ways: through parallel imports or by removing them from other aircraft in their fleet (a practice known as 'cannibalisation'). By analysing data from the customs aggregator ImportGenius, 'Proekt' and The New York Times have calculated that Russia imported over 5,000 shipments of American and European-made spare parts worth more than $40 million from the United States during the first eight months of 2022. According to The New York Times, American spare parts accounted for $14 million of those imports. These supplies were routed through companies in the UAE, Turkey, and China, but several batches were shipped directly from the US or Europe. On May 11, an Arizona district court arrested two Russian citizens who may have been involved in these activities. However, 'Proekt' notes that parallel imports are only able to satisfy a small portion of the demand. In 2021 alone, Aeroflot purchased parts worth at least $430 million, according to ImportGenius data.

It is more challenging to assess the scale of 'cannibalisation'. Using data from the Flightradar service, 'Proekt’ has calculated that at least 11.4% of aircraft belonging to Aeroflot, S7 Airlines, Pobeda, Rossiya, Ural Airlines, Utair, Nordwind, and other companies had not taken to the skies for over three months. However, it is unknown whether all of these were used as parts donors. It is likely that at least some of these planes are grounded awaiting delivery of parts or repairs.

There are significant issues with repairs and maintenance as well: there is a lack of both capacity and expertise. In 2022, approximately 170 Russian aircraft were scheduled for C-check maintenance (a deep inspection lasting about a month), and 55 were scheduled for D-check maintenance (requiring almost complete disassembly of the aircraft). In 2023, the numbers of aircraft requiring these checks are expected to be 159 and 85, respectively. Such work has to be carried out in Iran, a country that has accumulated similar experience over 40 years of life under sanctions. A member of the Russian delegation who flew to Iran to negotiate cooperation complained to 'Proekt' about the makeshift nature of operations there. The Flight Safety Foundation (FSF) identifies Iran as the worst country in its region in terms of aviation incidents.

It is not possible to replace foreign aircraft with Russian ones because they are practically nonexistent. The most common Russian aircraft, the SSJ 100, consists of 70% imported materials and components. The Ministry of Transport and the Federal Air Transport Agency (Rosaviation) hope that foreign planes will be able to 'fly safely’ until 2030. By that time, the Ministry of Industry and Trade is promising to replace them with 'fully Russian' aircraft. This goal is also outlined in the industry development program, which was prepared by the Ministry of Transport last year and has a budget of 627 billion rubles.

The main hope of the Russian aviation industry lies in the medium-range passenger aircraft MS-21, which is positioned as the 'killer' of the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320. The project was launched as far back as 2007, and in 2017, the MS-21 prototype made its first flight. Six months before Russia launched its full-scale invasion, the Ministry of Transport promised that by 2022, the company 'Irkut' (a part of 'Rostec') would produce 36 of these aircraft, with production increasing every year with the goal of reaching 72 aircraft per year by 2027. This was an ambitious plan, considering that Russia had produced fewer than 250 SSJ 100s in almost 15 years. However, the plan had to be revised due to sanctions which have deprived the Russian aircraft of foreign components. The start of serial production is now scheduled for 2025, with the goal of reaching 72 aircraft per year by 2029.

In 2022, only ten new SSJ 100s were brought into service, although there had been plans for double that number before the war. According to ‘Kommersant’s’ sources, by the end of 2030, there may be only 28 SSJ 100s in operation due to the age of the French engines installed in them. 'Rostec' denies this and states that they are engaged in a complex system-wide effort to carry out import substitution, and are creating their own components and assemblies. The appearance of the first 'fully import-substituted' version of the SSJ 100 is expected by the end of 2023. It is expected that in the following years only these versions will be produced, with an expected production rate of 20 aircraft per year.

Further, the resumption of serial production for new versions of the Soviet Tu-214 and Il-96 was announced last year. Thus, like a number of other industries, the aviation industry is being forced to engage in 'technologically regressive import substitution' (as defined by economist Branko Milanovic) as a result of sanctions. However, the production volumes of the Tu-214 and Il-96 are not clearly defined, even with the contradictions in official statements. According to Sergey Chemezov, the CEO of Rostekh, they are expected to produce '10 units by 2025.' Meanwhile, Dmitry Khoruzhik, the head of Aviasystems (which is involved in the material and technical support of the Tu-214 and Il-96), has stated that the continuation of the Tu-214 series depends on the completion of the 'special military operation' as suppliers are currently focused on fulfilling military orders and have little capacity for civilian aircraft.

Thus, the restart of civil aviation construction in Russia may begin closer to 2030 (though manufacturers have often missed deadlines in the past), leaving Russians to fly on whatever may be available. In 2022, Russia recorded 34 aviation incidents, with human error cited as the cause in 85% of cases. If official data is accurate, this aligns with the average over the past five years. However, experts interviewed by 'Kommersant' believe that there may be more problems ahead: ’The market could face a shortage of aircraft, but this would be preferable to incidents in the air. It is important not to repeat the negative experience of Iran, which faced a high accident rate immediately after sanctions were imposed.'