Russian planes are falling apart as Western sanctions block airline repairs


On a modest patch of farmland next to a forest in Novosibirsk, Siberia, a Ural Airlines Airbus A320 with 165 people on board had to make an emergency landing in a wheat field last September.

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

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

The farmer whose land is now home to the plane reportedly received one million rubles (£8,700) from Ural Airlines for the privilege.

Ural Airlines Airbus A320 passenger planeUral Airlines Airbus A320 passenger plane

Russian investigators inspect a Ural Airlines Airbus A320 passenger plane after its emergency landing in a field last September – Vladimir Nikolayev/AFP

It is just the latest example of a series of plane crashes in Russia since sanctions blocked the repair and maintenance of Western aircraft.

In December, an S7 Airlines Boeing 737 had to make an emergency landing in Siberia after its engine began spewing flames.

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

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

The number of safety incidents involving Russian aircraft more than doubled last year.

According to the Jet Airliner Crash Data Evaluation Center (JACDEC), there were 37 cases in 2022. Last year there were 81, of which more than half had to do with technical factors.

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

“These figures only reflect cases that have become public,” he said. “There is still a dark figure of unreported incidents.

“Many aircraft are unusable because they have been taken apart to keep the rest of the fleet in flying condition.”

The Russian blogosphere has recently been on fire over its security concerns, with many blaming the fallout on Western sanctions.

A post on the pro-government Telegram channel Nezygar called the restrictions a “crime against citizens” as they called for lawsuits worth millions of dollars against manufacturers who failed to supply parts.

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

“EASA has serious concerns about the aviation safety situation in Russia, including safety-critical issues such as how aircraft are maintained or how pilots and maintenance staff are trained,” said the agency’s Janet Northcote.

“We have seen reports that substandard practices are rampant in Russia, such as the use of parts of questionable origin.”


Russian state-owned airline Aeroflot is one of several involved in reported safety incidents – Trevisan Aviation Images/Alamy Stock Photo

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

“These are actually 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 almost the same size as it was at the same time last year,” said Rob Morris, global head of consultancy at aviation analytics firm Cirium.

However, cracks appear.

The number of planes flying daily on Russian domestic flights during the summer peak has fallen by about a tenth compared to 2022, according to Cirium data.

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

One of those solutions was to seek help from overseas allies such as Turkey, says Menshenin, which has not imposed sanctions on Russia.

He says that if the engine of a Russian plane needs to be repaired, the airline can sell it to an airline in Turkey. That airline will then use Western parts to repair it before sending it back to Russia.

“Turkey can carry out the necessary maintenance according to all flight safety procedures, and then it simply sells this engine back,” he says. “I’ve talked to people in Russia who do this.”

Russian companies also import parts from Central Asian countries, he says, such as Kazakhstan.

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

But there’s a catch, he adds: “A Russian airline now has to pay two or maybe three times more for the same thing as before the sanctions.”

Commercial airlines around the world operate on small profit margins of between 1 and 2 percent, and in Russia these are rapidly eroding.

“If the repairs on your engine become three times as expensive, you really struggle to make ends meet,” says Menshenin.

In addition to financial pressure, sanctions mean Russian airlines are no longer allowed to operate in the EU, limiting their travel through European airspace.

This means that some sources of income have disappeared, while others have become uneconomic.

A normal flight from Moscow to Havana, Cuba would be 5,200 nautical miles (5,984 miles).

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

Russian charter airline Azur Air has since abandoned this route completely.

The impact of sanctions is greater for smaller carriers. But even S7, Russia’s largest private airline, has been forced to ground planes.

Analysts fear that the number of accidents in the country will only increase, even as the number of flights falls.

Consultancy Oliver Wyman expects the total number of operational aircraft in Russia to more than halve by 2026.

“The best-case scenario is that Russian airlines will keep most of the fleet flying, even though smaller airlines will no longer exist,” Menshinin said. “The worst scenario is that Russian airlines will have to abandon the latest aircraft types altogether.”

Russia’s Federal Air Transport Agency, S7, Aeroflot and Ural Airlines were contacted for comment.

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