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Russia’s planes fall apart as Western sanctions block airline repairs

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Published Time: 12.02.2024 - 08:40:18 Modified Time: 12.02.2024 - 08:40:18

Safety incidents more than double year-on-year with majority linked to technical factors On an unassuming piece of farmland next to a forest in Novosibirsk, Siberia, a Ural Airlines Airbus A320 carrying 165 people last September was forced to crash-land in a field of wheat

Safety incidents more than double year-on-year with majority linked to technical factors

On an unassuming piece of farmland next to a forest in Novosibirsk, Siberia, a Ural Airlines Airbus A320 carrying 165 people last September was forced to crash-land in a field of wheat.

The plane was flying from Omsk to Sochi when its hydraulic systems failed, forcing the pilot to take drastic action as the plane started running out of fuel. 

Six months later, the grounded plane is still there because Ural Airlines has been unable to fly it out. 

The farmer whose land is now home to the aircraft has reportedly been paid one million roubles (£8,700) by Ural Airlines for the privilege.

It is just the latest example of a string of airline accidents to emerge in Russia since sanctions blocked the repair and maintenance of Western aircraft.

In December, a Boeing 737 run by S7 Airlines had to make an emergency landing in Siberia after its engine started spurting flames. 

On the same day, an Airbus plane operated by Rossiya Airlines made an emergency landing in Mineralnye Vody after it began falling from the sky. 

In the same month, state airline Aeroflot grappled with landing gear and wing flap failures as the cabin in one of its Boeing 777s filled with smoke.

Safety incidents on Russian planes more than doubled last year. 

In 2022, there were 37 cases, according to the Jet Airliner Crash Data Evaluation Centre (JACDEC). Last year, there were 81, more than half of which were linked to technical factors.

The actual total could be significantly higher, says Jan-Arwed Richter, founder and chief executive of JACDEC. 

“These numbers only reflect cases that became public,” he says. “There is still a dark figure of unreported incidents. 

“Many aircraft are inoperable because they were parted out to keep the rest of the fleet in flying condition.”

The Russian blogosphere has recently been set alight given the safety problems, with many people blaming the impact of Western sanctions.

One post on the pro-government Telegram channel Nezygar called the restrictions a “crime against civilians”, as they called for multimillion-dollar lawsuits against manufacturers not providing parts.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has already made a stark warning about the safety of Russian jets.

“EASA is seriously concerned about the safety situation of aviation in Russia, including safety critical related matters such as how aircraft are maintained or how the pilots and the maintenance staff are trained,” says Janet Northcote, of the agency.

“We have seen reports that sub-standard practices are rampant in Russia, such as the use of parts from dubious provenance.”

Sanctions introduced after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine mean that Russian operators cannot access spare parts or technical updates for Western-made aircraft.

“That is basically almost all types of aircraft used in Russian commercial aviation,” says aviation analyst Andrei Menshenin.

Despite this, Russian planes are still flying.

“The data shows that the commercial fleet is pretty much the same size as it was the same time last year,” says Rob Morris, global head of consultancy at aviation analytics firm Cirium.

However, cracks are emerging. 

The number of aircraft flying daily on Russian domestic flights during the summer peak was down by about a tenth compared to 2022, according to data from Cirium.

When sanctions first hit, Russian airlines quickly found ways to get around them. 

One such solution was enlisting help from overseas allies, such as Turkey, says Menshenin, which hasn’t imposed any sanctions against Russia. 

He says that if the engine of a Russian plane needs repairs, the airline can sell it to an airline in Turkey. That airline will then use Western parts to fix it before returning it to Russia. 

“Turkey can do the necessary maintenance according to all the flight safety procedures, and then it just sells this engine back,” he says. “I have been talking to people in Russia who are doing this.”

Russian companies are also importing parts from central Asian countries, he says, such as Kazakhstan. 

“It is not forbidden for American or European companies to export anything to Kazakhstan,” says Menshenin. “But then inside Kazakhstan there are companies owned by Russian companies and they import it across the border.”

But there is a catch, he adds: “A Russian airline now needs to pay twice or maybe three times more for the same thing as they did before the sanctions.”

Commercial airlines around the world operate on slim profit margins of between 1pc and 2pc and in Russia these are being rapidly eroded. 

“If your engine repairs become three times more expensive then you are really struggling to make ends meet,” says Menshenin.

Alongside financial pressures, sanctions mean Russian carriers are also no longer allowed to operate in the EU, restricting their travel through European airspace. 

This means some revenue sources have disappeared, while others have become uneconomical. 

A typical flight from Moscow to Havana in Cuba should be 5,200 nautical miles (5,984 miles). 

But now the planes must take a longer route says Menshinin, adding at least 800 nautical miles to the journey and more than two hours to the flight time. 

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