‘No better than North Korea’: Russian aviation faces wipeout

Russians are facing a future with little or no international air travel amid the ostracisation of its aviation sector.

An Aeroflot Airbus A320-200 aircraft takes off at Sheremetyevo International Airport outside Moscow, Russia, June 10, 2018.
Russia's aviation sector is facing crippling international isolation following Moscow's invasion of Ukraine [File: Maxim Shemetov/Reuters]

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has resulted in its airlines being banned from European, American and Canadian airspace, leaving the country with leased aircraft it cannot use, and scuttling aerospace industry partnerships with the West.

Russian citizens won’t be flying to Europe or North America anytime soon, with even flights to friendly countries such as China in doubt due to the international community’s ostracisation of the country’s aviation sector, according to aviation analysts.

“Russia will be the world’s largest country with a developed economy and an aviation industry no better than North Korea’s,” Richard Aboulafia, managing director of Michigan-based AeroDynamic Advisory, told Al Jazeera.

“Aviation sanctions are easy to enforce,” said Aboulafia, who has more than 30 years of experience in the aviation industry. “Airlines can’t fly. They will have to completely redo their aircraft plans, which at the moment, are built on Western technology.”

Eurocontrol, the agency that guides air traffic policy in the European Union, reports that 300 flights a day by Russian carriers to Europe and 50 flights a day by European airlines to Russian airports have been suspended. Russia has retaliated with reciprocal restrictions against any country that has banned its flights.

“It will get progressively harder for Russians to travel for two reasons,” Sash Tusa, an aerospace and defence analyst for Agency Partners LLP in London, told Al Jazeera. “One is that Russian airspace is closed to Western aircraft. In addition, international travel becomes extremely difficult as support for Western-built airline aircraft in Russia is withdrawn.”

Boeing plane
Boeing and Airbus have cut off Russian airlines from spare parts for their planes [File: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg]

Boeing and Airbus, Russia’s main suppliers of commercial aircraft, have cut Russian airlines off from access to spare parts for their planes. Boeing has also shut a design centre it operated in Moscow and temporarily closed its office in Kyiv.

It could be weeks or months before airlines’ supplies of spare parts run out. Airlines could prolong operations by grounding some aircraft and cannibalising them for spare parts to use on the planes that are still flying, although such practices are prohibited under the terms of the leases that cover commercial aircraft.

Like most commercial aircraft today, Russian airlines’ planes are largely owned by leasing companies in the West. Under European sanctions, leasing companies have until March 28 to terminate their contracts with Russian carriers. Several leasing firms, including Ireland-based AerCap, the world’s No.1 player, have confirmed that they have written to their Russian customers seeking the return of their aircraft.

Ulick McEvaddy, the founder of aircraft leasing company Omega Air, has described the task of recovering hundreds of aircraft from Russia at such short notice as “mission impossible” due to the possibility of legal challenges and the ban on Russian aircraft flying in European airspace.

The Cape Town Convention, designed to prevent an airline from absconding with an aircraft, has not been tested in court since it was signed in 2001. Three out of every four passenger and cargo jets in Russian service today are from Boeing or Airbus, which supply more than 300 aircraft each. Only 136 Russian-made jets are operating with Russian airlines, according to data from Cirium, an aviation analytics company.

“What are the odds they can be repossessed?” Aboulafia said.

How long Russian aviation remains in the doldrums will depend not only on how long the war in Ukraine lasts but also the time it takes for the Russian state to be rehabilitated in the eyes of the West.

Tusa predicts the rupture in relations between Russia and the West will last years, describing it as “more serious than others in the post-war period”.

Aboulalfia said the war in Ukraine may also make Russia’s customers for military aircraft, such as India – the biggest buyer of MiG and Sukhoi fighter jets – think twice about buying more.

Tolerance for risk

Safety concerns are also likely to hamper Russian aviation going forward.

Henry Wilkinson, the founder of London-based security and intelligence company Dragonfly, said he has been receiving a deluge of inquiries from airlines since the war in Ukraine began.

In 2014, Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down by a Russian-made Buk missile while flying over a part of eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian rebels, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew on board. The tragedy is likely to be top of mind for airlines flying in Europe during the crisis.

“The information they need from us depends on the airline,” Wilkinson told Al Jazeera.

“Airlines have different tolerances for risk and also get different levels of information. US airlines are obviously very well supported by the FAA, but airlines in other countries don’t get a lot of information from their local government agencies. Airlines are currently trying to find corridors linking Europe to Asia that are safe and efficient.”

Airlines generally are giving Russian and Ukrainian airspace a wide berth. Flights from Europe to Asia that would normally pass over Ukraine and Russia have been diverted south to the skies over Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan.

Eurocontrol has reported significant disruptions to major routes. Flights between Frankfurt and Beijing are now two hours longer than before, with flights between Helsinki and Tokyo taking up to five additional hours.

Stephen Furlong, a senior equity analyst with Davy Capital Markets in Dublin, Ireland, said European airlines have so far not been overly affected by the disruptions.

“Before the Ukraine crisis, Lufthansa only had about 2 percent of its flights to Russia and less than 1 percent to China and Japan,” Furlong told Al Jazeera, explaining that European airlines had yet to add back many flights to Asia that were cancelled during the pandemic.

building shelled in Ukraine
Russia’s military offensive against Ukraine has prompted sanctions targeting many sectors of the Russian economy, including aviation [File: Oleksandr Lapshyn/Reuters]

Cooperation between the West and Russia in space will also take a hit.

“There are hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Ukrainian, US, and European space operations that have been stopped or outright destroyed by the war so far,” Craig Covault, a former correspondent for Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine, told Al Jazeera.

Those projects include critical operations related to resupplying the International Space Station, the launch of the OneWeb satellite internet service intended to compete with Elon Musk’s Starlink program, and Europe’s ExoMars Mars rover being built by British Aerospace.

“All of these projects have been at least a decade in the making and involve thousands of Ukrainian and European engineers,” Covault said.

The Ukrainian projects affected include the Antares rocket booster that launches the Northrop Grumman Cygnus space station resupply spacecraft from Wallops Island in Virginia. It lifts about half of the supplies required by the space station, while Elon Musk’s Space X transports the rest.

Meanwhile, the Russian space agency has said it will no longer service RD-180 rocket engines used by the United Launch Alliance, the Boeing and Lockheed joint venture. These boosters are used to lift top-secret US national defence payloads into space for the Pentagon.

Source: Al Jazeera