An-124 Freighters Facing an Uncertain Future

The breakdown of relations between Russia and the Ukraine caused by the annexation of the Crimea seems to be the final nail in the coffin of joint aviation projects between the two countries. If economic sanctions that are already imposed by the West on Russia are even further expanded, which seems likely, the situation will get even worse.

At present, Antonov Airlines and Volga-Dnepr Airlines still operate their An-124-100s jointly in the framework of the SALIS airlift project  /  source photos: LEJ Airport
At present, Antonov Airlines and Volga-Dnepr Airlines still operate their An-124-100s jointly in the framework of the SALIS airlift project / source photos: LEJ Airport

o one in the west would understand it if the Ukraine were to continue commercial and technical cooperation with Russia on aviation matters, while at the same time they were asking the west to stand up and be firm. This would be seen as hypocrisy of the highest order.

If the cooperation and flow of documents and technical support stops, it would jeopardize the future of Russian operated An-124 freighters and obstruct any common mid and long-term projects between Moscow and Kiev. The An-124 is in fact a Ukrainian aircraft not a Russian one as is popularly believed, although the Russians have been the leaders in its commercial applications. It may have been a product of the Soviet Union but that died many years ago when even the Russians signed a treaty ensuring Ukrainian sovereignty.

Global workhorse
Since former Soviet times aviation matters have been closely linked between Russia and the Ukraine, both in commercial and military endeavors – a pact to mutual benefit. Their best-known showpiece is without any doubt the mighty Antonov 124-100 and -150 craft that have become the global workhorse for uplifting heavy and oversized items. Equally, the freighter is highly valued by humanitarian aid organizations in the event of natural disasters to ferry supplies and rescue teams to sites quickly and reliably. One of their largest clients has been the U.S. Military in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Close ties
The aviation pact between Russia and the Ukraine even goes so far as to building up joint ventures between operators of both countries. The best example of this can be seen in Leipzig, where Ulyanovsk-headquartered Volga-Dnepr Airlines and their Kiev-based long-time partner Antonov Design Bureau through Antonov Airlines have engaged in the “Ruslan Salis” named joint venture (50/50%) to serve the transport needs of EU member states and some of the NATO participants in case uplift capacity is requested. This was established in 2004.

The other joint venture agreement is “Ruslan International Ltd,” established to market the joint commercial capacity to clients other than the military needs that SALIS was founded for. Since the slow demise of all competitors like Polet, who recently had aircraft seized, and Maximus who themselves face difficulties, it’s become a virtual monopoly for the type and for the joint venture. From all what’s known this project has meanwhile turned into a cash cow for both operators.

Widening political and economic gap
However, the new ice age between Moscow and Kiev resulting from Russia’s seizure of the Ukrainian Crimea Peninsula not only endangers but also presumably obstructs any further cooperation in aviation matters between the former allies. As the political gap between both countries widens day by day the somber outlook is that the good times of close cooperation in aviation are irreparably damaged and this surely must have raised alarm bells, particularly in Moscow and Ulyanovsk.

This is mainly because, as the Ukrainian An-124 developer Antonov Design Bureau has now pointed out, only they are the legitimate holder of all rights on the freighter, including intellectual property and the entire technical documentation. Without their support it will become impossible for any An-124 operator to continue doing business as usual, pretending nothing has changed. This is the first immediate reaction to Moscow’s Crimea annexation and continued threats.

This might change should the rift between Moscow and Kiev be deepened
This might change should the rift between Moscow and Kiev be deepened

Kiev claims the freighters being theirs
The fact remains that global aviation authority’s acceptance of the An-124 in their air space is based on the Ukrainian certification and continued guarantees from Kiev that all safety and air worthiness issues are up to date. They can certainly do this for Antonov Airlines and Maximus who have a presence in the Ukraine, but logically will not do so for Volga-Dnepr, Polet, and the commercial arm of the Russian Military who had commercial success in the gulf serving the military requirements of the US and NATO in past years.

The Ukrainian developer’s legal and justifiable position has meanwhile alarmed Russia’s government which is working frantically on a contingency solution and even an exit strategy. Meanwhile, there are first indications that Russia intends to try and provide the needed technical support for the An-124 freighter fleet on its own to prevent national operators like Volga-Dnepr Airlines suffering any damage, however this would need international agreements as to acceptance of airworthiness, and with the current mood seems somehow questionable.

The commercial damage is done for RUSLAN SALIS in particular, and the likelihood of NATO and the EEC military defying sanctions or even wanting to be seen allowing Russian carriers to be used is a fact, not a supposition.

It seems obvious that an Antonov Airlines managed and controlled stand alone commercial agreement with NATO, excluding any Russian involvement, would receive a lot of sympathetic NATO and EEC attention and business going forward, and they certainly must be thinking the same. But that would be a further twist in this conflict spiral.

Moscow deploys a task force
Sanctions aside, for operational matters Russia’s Ministry of Industry has set up a task force to fast provide a plan B in case cross-border projects in aviation should come to a sudden halt. This applies to the supply of components, aircraft tools, and the exchange of engineering expertise, for all aircraft affected.

Someone who is less amused about the political and industrial rift between Russia and the Ukraine is Sergey Dementiev, CEO of the Ulyanovsk plant Aviastar-SP. He told local media that his enterprise wouldn’t want to spend extraordinary sums for the production of aircraft parts and components that were supplied by Ukrainian partners up to now.

Antonov officials declined to comment on the prospect of any future cooperation with the Russians but announced an official statement to be issued soon.

Bombardier withdraws from an agreement
Canada has in the meantime also taken steps to freeze projects in Russia. According to plane maker Bombardier an intended joint venture to produce motors for the Q-400 turboprop series has been put on ice until further notice as reaction to the Crimea occupation. Financial institutions in the west will back away from any support of risky Russian ventures, and of course Aeroflot and Transaero are heavily dependent on Boeing and Airbus, and should Russia retaliate on sanctions, these companies may be front line no matter what further damage it inflicts on Russia’s airlines.

It would seem that in aviation at least, the hopes of Russia’s aviation sector including commercial ones like Volga Dnepr, to access western markets and capabilities is under its worst nightmare situation, and only time will tell if they are right.

Heiner Siegmund


IN BRIEF

Ruslan SALIS GmbH
Ruslan SALIS GmbH was established in 2004 in Leipzig by ist joint founder partners, Volga-Dnepr Group (Russia) and Antonov Design Bureau (Ukraine). The company won an international tender for air transportation support to anti-terrorist, peacekeeping and humanitarian operations. At present 17 Western European countries and Canada participate in the SALIS project (Strategic Airlift Interim Solution). In October 2006, a modern maintenance base for the An-124-100 was established within Ruslan SALIS GmbH framework to further improve service and reliability levels and provide for all contract terms to be duly fulfilled.

Ruslan International Ltd
In June 2006, Volga-Dnepr Airlines (Russia) and Antonov Airlines (Ukraine) established a joint venture – Ruslan International Ltd – in order to maximize the utilization of the combined An-124-100 commercial fleet. It became the airlines’ shared marketing agend in the world freighter market for An-124-100 aircraft and has a total combined fleet of 17 Ruslan freighters (10 belong to Volga-Dnepr Airlines and 7 are owned by Antonov Airlines). The joint operation of the Russian and Ukrainian fleets allows for more expeditious airfreight services and helps clients use the aircraft’s air logistics advantages in the most effective Way. The joint venture is registered in the UK.