Russia’s civil aviation in slow collapse

Russia’s civil aviation in slow collapse
Russia's civil aviation is in slow collapse as the number of accidents rises and spare parts are in short supply. / bne IntelliNews
By bne IntelliNews November 27, 2023

Russian Minister of Transport Vitaly Savelyev has announced that Russia has lost a total of 76 Airbus and Boeing passenger planes located abroad due to international sanctions, Anton Gerashchenko, advisor to Ukraine’s Minister of Internal Affairs  and founder of the Institute of the Future, said in a tweet on November 25.

As of now, Russia's domestic aviation fleet consists of 1,302 aircraft, with 1,167 of them serving as passenger airliners. This marks a slight increase compared to the figures reported in April 2022 when the country had a fleet of 1,287 commercial aircraft, including 1,101 passenger planes. At that time, approximately 67.1% of the fleet comprised foreign-made aeroplanes, responsible for handling 95% of passenger turnover.

The aviation sector in Russia faced severe sanctions following the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, which targeted major Russian airlines and their executives. In addition, Boeing and Airbus suspended the delivery of spare parts to Russia and halted maintenance and support services for Russian airlines' aircraft. These restrictions also led to the termination of leasing contracts.

In September, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) issued a "red flag" for Russia in its flight safety audits, signalling concerns about aviation safety in the country. In May, reports indicated that Russian airlines had lowered safety requirements due to shortages of spare parts. More recently, airlines in Russia have requested agencies to extend the technical service life of An-24 and An-26 passenger jets, as many of these aircraft are nearing the end of their operational life.

The situation in Russian civil aviation appears increasingly dire. Ukrainian intelligence conducted a cyber operation against Rosaviation, obtaining classified documents from the Russian Ministry of Transport. The information revealed several alarming trends:

  • In January 2023, Russian civil aviation recorded 185 air accidents, with roughly a third classified as incidents of varying danger. The "Dry superjet," a Russian short-haul aeroplane, led with 34 incidents.
  • During the first nine months of 2023, there were 150 documented cases of aircraft malfunctions in Russia, compared to 50 in the same period in 2022. This represents a tripling of incidents, indicating a significant increase in the risks associated with flying in Russia.
  • Critical aircraft components such as engines, landing gear, hydraulic systems, flaps, and software remain vulnerable areas in Russian aviation.
  • Russia is facing difficulties in maintaining high-flying aircraft, and it is attempting to shift aircraft maintenance to Iran, where such work is conducted without proper certification.
  • As of March 2022, Russia had approximately 820 foreign-made civilian aircraft, with only about 10% of them having undergone uncertified repairs using off-brand spare parts at that time. Now, nearly 70% of the fleet has been subjected to such uncertified "service." The shortage of spare parts has led to a practice known as "aviation cannibalism" in Russia, where some aircraft are dismantled to repair others. By mid-2023, more than 35% of aircraft in Russia had undergone this process.
  • A significant number of Soviet-era An-2 aircraft are grounded because their engines were manufactured in Poland, and their supply has been suspended due to sanctions.
  • In January 2023 alone, 19 different malfunctions were recorded among the 220 Airbus aircraft in Russia, including 17 cases of smoke in 9 aircraft used by Aeroflot.
  • Among the 230 Boeing aircraft used in Russia, 33 experienced technical failures in various aircraft systems.
  • Approximately one in seven Brazilian Embraer aircraft failed to meet the conditions of Russian operation, with 21 of them present in Russia.

These revelations underscore the substantial challenges facing Russia's civil aviation sector due to sanctions and the resultant impact on the safety and maintenance of its aircraft fleet.