The year 2040 seems a long way down the line. However, the date is a deciding one for Volga-Dnepr Airlines with regards to their future fleet planning and survival in the heavy lift cargo segment.
AN-124 life span slowly grinds down
The Ulyanovsk Vosotochny, Russia-based carrier which is also AirBridgeCargo’s and CargoLogicAir’s mother company, has made a notable name for itself during the past years in the field of heavy, outsized and difficult air cargo transport across the globe. It operates a total of twelve Antonov AN-124 freighters, which is the largest amount of any carrier using the type. There are estimated to be thirty of this Ukrainian built aircraft still in service. Antonov Airlines has seven, Russia’s Air Force 224 Flight Unit, a further seven and other Russian Air Force units operate three of the type. Abu Dhabi-based Maximus Airlines has one AN-124 on their books.
The disputes between the Russian and Ukrainian governments has led to no agreement as regards future development or production of the aircraft. It is said that there are also around twenty of the type in storage, with no chance of them being put into service in the future. One way or another, the AN-124 faces final phasing out of service by latest 2040. Commercial operator, Volga-Dnepr, needs a solution far before that date as to the AN-124 successor. This may apply just as well for the Russian military who utilise the aircraft on a regular basis for troop and equipment transport.
Where will a replacement aircraft originate?
Volga-Dnepr is the world leader in heavy lift transport, especially for the oil and gas industry as well as in the mining sector and outsized turbine business, which have become fully reliable on fast service when outsized units have to be transported by air. This situation, be it oil and gas or mining will not change after 2040.
The AN-124’s big advantage is its greater volume capacity and nose loading size compared to the largest western rival, the B747 freighter and its ability to transport very heavy items as singe loads. It has a range of 4,500 kilometres with a 120 ton load. However, it is reported that Volga-Dnepr is aiming for a replacement aircraft which can uplift 150-170 tons over a range of up to 10,000 kilometres.
Where does one get such an aircraft by 2040 which can also offer far more volume than the long-serving AN-124? It will need a complete new facelift and much different avionics and engine power than the AN-124.
One thing is sure!
The “new” heavy transporter will need to be developed by a yet to be set-up consortium which is in a position to produce an aircraft with the above mentioned payload, range and volume. New engine types will have to be developed in order to produce necessary lift and range. Russian and western companies are said to have started getting their heads together in order to determine what would be the ideal heavy lift freighter.
Of course - there is still the question of the Airship (Airlander) freighters which are being developed to carry heavy loads, but at low speed. Not really a solution for Volga-Dnepr in the future.
The year 2040 seems far away - but twenty years is not long and past experience in the development of new commercial aircraft types has shown that basically “it’s just around the corner.”
John Mc Donagh