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How did Russian airlines circumvent sanctions?

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Russian carriers have been able to stock up on spare parts to maintain strong local service across their vast country.

Since the beginning of the war between Russia and Ukraine, GA Telesis, an aircraft parts distributor based in Florida, has received many suspicious orders. They stem from shadowy societies created last year in the United Arab Emirates and in former Soviet republics such as Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. Concerned about sanctions against Russia, GA Telesis requires proof that the parts are for a specific airline and aircraft. The company’s founder, Abdel Maabry, says that when these questions are asked, companies disappear.

“We have a strong compliance department, but not everyone has it,” he told Forbes.

When the United States and Europe began imposing economic sanctions in the wake of the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine a year ago, aviation experts predicted that Russian airlines would turn to cannibalizing parts to keep a dwindling number of planes in the air. Yet despite signs of stress, airlines have shown remarkable resilience in procuring enough aircraft parts to continue traversing this vast country, which relies on air travel to connect isolated communities.

The number of international destinations served by Russian airlines has decreased sharply due to the ban on flights, but air transport within the country remains regular. In February, available kilometers traveled in Russia – a key measure of domestic capacity – fell just 13% from the same month a year earlier, according to data provider OAG. Meanwhile, the number of passengers increased by about 50 thousand to 6.5 million, according to Kommersant. In April, Russian airlines decided to increase available seat mileage by 2% compared to last year.

Certainly, Russian aircraft do not inspire much confidence when it comes to safety. Parts that airlines have been able to mine on the black market and through cannibalism are becoming rarer and taking longer to obtain, says Andrey Batrakov, founder of RunAvia, a Moscow-based company that makes software for aviation management, maintenance and logistics. This results in extended maintenance intervals and aircraft flying with broken parts as long as the backup system is working or the minimum necessary systems are in operation.

“The situation is much better than we expected, but at the same time we are seeing an increase in security risks,” says Batrakov.

Horror stories attest to these compromises. In late February, a Russian Airlines Boeing 737 made an emergency landing after depressurization inside the cabin. A few weeks ago, an Azur Air Boeing 767 aborted takeoff from Phuket, Thailand, after flames erupted from one of the engines. No injuries were reported in either incident. “I am convinced that flying has not become more dangerous and that it has nothing to do with the presence or absence of original spare parts,” Alexander Neradko, director of Rosaviatsia, Russia’s federal air transport agency, told Russian media. earlier this year. “The practice of exchanging serviceable spare parts from one aircraft to another has long been widespread, even in Soviet times. »

As of Wednesday, 793 large passenger and freighter aircraft were in service in Russia, down 101 from mid-February last year, according to aviation analytics firm Cirium. Much of this decline appears to be due to some 59 of the 483 aircraft leased to Russian carriers being repossessed by foreign owners, according to Cirium.

Russian airlines have taken advantage of the fact that many of their planes were grounded during the most difficult period of the pandemic, which has reduced wear and tear on them. Today, while international flights have been greatly reduced, they still have far too many planes to handle. According to Planespotters.net, about 20% of the aircraft of Aeroflot, Russia’s largest airline, are currently parked or in long-term storage. At some smaller airlines, more than 30% of planes remain idle, according to Batrakov. In January, the government initiated the transfer of spare parts for these parked aircraft.

Airlines are also benefiting from the relative youth and reliability of their Western planes, says John Goglia, a former aviation mechanic and former member of the US National Transportation Safety Board. The 249 Airbus jets still owned by Russian airlines have, on average, just over 10 years old, according to Cirium, while the Boeing 227s have an average age of just under 14.

For aircraft parts, Russia follows the same pattern as Iran, a country under longstanding sanctions: going through middlemen who funnel parts through multiple middlemen in order to disguise their final destination. Russia has reportedly found willing partners in former Soviet republics and countries such as Turkey, India and China. But this method is expensive. With each broker taking a slice of the pie, prices can be two to five times higher than normal rates, depending on industry sources, and waiting times are longer.

Normal market dynamics are helping the Russians in their efforts to evade sanctions, says Jason Dicksten, a Washington-based aviation attorney who does due diligence for US parts companies. If someone says, “I’m a broker, I want to buy something from you, and I want you to ship it to another broker who will sell it to the airline,” many people don’t bat an eyelid because that’s how it’s been working for decades.

Russia is repairing its planes in some countries that still allow its planes to fly. Most of the time this is done quietly, Batrakov says, but last month Rosaviatsia publicly endorsed a Dubai-based company, Global Jet Technic, to service Russia-owned Boeing 737s and a series of Airbus jets.

After months of pressure from the United States, Turkey two weeks ago banned refueling and ground services for Boeing planes operated by Russia. A US Commerce Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity told Forbes that the government is warning former Soviet republics and other countries that airlines serving Russian planes could be subject to US sanctions.

Russia also began manufacturing its own parts for aircraft built in the West. Last year, Rosaviatsia approved Aeroflot’s maintenance arm A-Technics, which works with other airlines, to manufacture cabin and galley components, as well as parts for air conditioning and lighting, brakes and fuselage.

Russian airlines may have more severe problems finding parts for the Sukhoi Superjet 100, an 87-100-seat regional airliner with about 70% of parts from foreign sources, due to lower quantities produced compared to Airbus and Boeing planes, according to Batrakov. . Russian airlines fear a shortage of US-made spark plugs will force them to ground many of their 160 superjumbo jets. Work is underway to locally manufacture spark plugs, as well as to develop replacements for all foreign contents on board, including the engines, under a program launched in 2018.

The all-Russian version of the Superjet is a key part of the government’s plan to reduce the share of foreign-made aircraft used by Russian airlines to 20% by 2030.

While newer devices are more reliable, newer devices like the A320neo and A350 have another problem: parts come directly from the manufacturer, making them more difficult to obtain. Selon Karl Steeves, trustateur of TrustFlight, a British society specializing in logics d’aviation, lorsque des problems surviennent, it is more difficile for the Russes of the résoudre, Boeing and Airbus les ont coupés des mises à jour logicielles et de l Technical help.

Rosaviatsia tente à présent d’élaborer des lignes directrices sur l’entretien des avions étrangers, tâche que l’agence laissait auparavant aux regulateurs occidentaux, et de certifier les pièces de change, all cela sans avoir accès aux détails de l’ingénierie et de design. For simple things like tires, it might not be that hard, but the exact components of engines would be very challenging, Batrakov believes.

Mwabre said the engines could be the “brick wall” facing Russian Airlines. Because of their size, entire engines are not readily available on the black market, and maintenance is usually done by the manufacturers or by a small circle of authorized workshops who obtain many parts directly from them.

“If this war goes on for five years, I don’t see how Russia can fly Western commercial planes because all the engines will burn out,” Mwabre said.

With costs rising and revenues falling, Batrakov predicts more and more Russian airlines will go bankrupt — nine of them stopped flying last year, and four had their seaworthiness certificates revoked. Over time, reliability and security will be increasingly compromised.

“You can say the plane is safe,” says Batrakov. “You can lie to yourself or to the population. But you cannot reverse the physics of flight.”

Translated article from the American magazine Forbes – Author: Jeremy Bojeski

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