Airbus A320-232 with tail number Yu-APKh made its first flight December 13, 2005 The aircraft has since traveled millions of miles on Air Deccan, Kingfisher Airlines, Bingo Airways and Syphax Airlines routes before being handed over to Air Serbia, the flag carrier of the Eastern European nation, in 2014. .
Eight years Yu-ARH flew without problems – until it landed at 22:37 May 25, 2022 at Moscow Sheremetyevo International Airport. He flew in from Belgrade and was supposed to fly out again late in the evening within an hour. But a problem arose: the pilot reported a problem with the aircraft’s engine case that needed to be fixed. North Carolina-based Collins Aerospace, the supplier of the broken part, reportedly refused to fix the problem, citing sanctions against Russia following its February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. The plane got stuck. (Collins Aerospace did not respond to a request for comment.)
It took six days to solve the problem, and the A320 flew from Moscow to Belgrade. Air Serbia also did not respond to a request for comment on how the engine cover was replaced or repaired or who made the part. YU-APH has been able to correct its mistake, but the international community is increasingly concerned that planes flying to, from and around Russia could pose a security risk as sanctions prevent them from being properly serviced. Patrick Key, Executive Director of the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, said at a recent conference that, in his opinion, the situation was “very unsafe”. “In six months, who knows? In a year, who knows? he said.
As of the end of May, the Russian commercial aircraft fleet had 876 aircraft, according to data provided by the consulting company Ascend by Cirium, compared to 968 aircraft at the end of February. Most of them were produced by Airbus or Boeing aircraft, which stopped deliveries of spare parts to Russian airlines in order to comply with sanctions rules. “They are not allowed to purchase any parts from Boeing or Airbus,” says Bijan Wasig, an economics professor at Embry-Riddle Aviation University. “The transfer of any part or technical experience to Russia is prohibited.” The problem is that planes need constant maintenance, repair and replacement.
Planes are not simple things, they have a lot of parts assembled to keep passengers in the air. And because flying involves high stakes, some parts need to be changed very regularly. Anyone who has ever watched an airplane landing from the ground or from an observation deck knows that stopping a heavy metal pipe is no easy task. Tires are one of the most damaged parts of the aircraft, they burn rubber when braking, clouds of smoke often escape from under the wheels, and there are many slippery black marks on the pavement. Tires are changed every 120-400 landings an aircraft makes. Domestic flights on short domestic routes can amount to four flights a day, which means that the wheels need to be changed every one to three months. Boeing stopped supplying Russian market March 1 113 days ago. Airbus followed a day later. “They wear out quickly,” says Max Kingsley Jones, senior consultant at Ascend by Cirium, of wheels. “They can’t find replacement tires: that’s a potential risk.”
Worn tires will be the first sign of wear. Aircraft are powered by computer systems that require regular maintenance, with some systems programmed to shut down after a certain number of flight cycles or calendar days and reset. This includes aircraft engines and auxiliary power units, an electric generator that pumps compressed air through the cabin in flight and powers the engine when the aircraft is first turned on. “Some of these parts have a limited lifespan,” says Kingsley Jones. “They literally have to be taken off the plane and replaced when they reach a certain age or make a certain number of flights.” Despite the stereotype of old, dilapidated planes crashing into the ground, Russia’s aircraft fleet compares favorably with that of much of the rest of the world. Average age Russian aircraft is 10.5 years old, according to the Association of Tour Operators of Russia. The age of the average passenger aircraft in the world is 10.3 yearsaccording to consulting firm Oliver Wyman.
“Don’t underestimate Russia’s aeronautical capabilities,” says Kingsley Jones. “They are a very capable nation; they have their own aircraft industry and are quite capable of maintaining their aircraft.” But as Russian airlines run out of official spare parts, they will be forced to take alternative measures. In April and May, the Russian authorities expanded the pool of companies which can serve aircraft operating in the country in excess of international standards. “I don’t think all these planes are flying death traps,” says Kingsley Jones. “Moreover, there is an unknown quantity in all this.” To replace broken parts, it is quite possible to use third-party parts manufactured by Russian manufacturers. This is what happens in the rest of the world, but is frowned upon by the leasing companies that provide most of the aircraft to carriers. (Russia said it plans to build a plant for the production of parts in Kazan by 2023 to fill the supply gap.) “If the situation is not actually resolved in the next two to three months, Russian aircraft may be completely stopped or forced to fly with unapproved or unauthorized parts,” Vasig says.
Sanctions, along with the global slowdown caused by Covid-19, have reduced a significant portion of Russia’s international air travel, according to consulting firm Ascend by Cirium. The number of aircraft tracked on international flights on June 10 was 179, compared to 493 on January 3, 2020. This is largely due to the fact that about 70 percent of Aeroflot’s planes are leased by a company that called its planes back from the Russian carrier, according to Vasig. This means that if his planes land in most European countries, they will be confiscated. But while international flights have been suspended, domestic air travel in Russia continues at a stable level. Ascend by Cirium tracked 456 domestic aircraft on June 10, up 30 from 2.5 years ago.
Planes are still flying, but parts are not arriving. So what’s going on? “Most likely, Russian operators will have to dismantle their other aircraft,” says Vladimir Bilotkach, assistant professor of air transport management at the Singapore Institute of Technology. This causes its own problems. The current concern is the safety of aircraft flying here and now. But it is unlikely that Russia will forever remain a pariah state. The sanctions will eventually be lifted and aircraft currently flying in Russia, many of which were illegal sequestered by the Russian state— want to return to flight routes without connecting to Russia. This will be more difficult if Frankenstein uses parts from other planes.
“All these parts are quite strictly controlled,” says Bilotkach. “Manufacturers know exactly which part will be installed on which aircraft. You need proper records of this. But the necessary documents are unlikely to be saved. “Once an aircraft doesn’t have a proper maintenance record, its value drops to zero,” Wasig says.
None of the experts WIRED spoke to said they were in a hurry to board the plane, which is currently flying in Russia. Bilotkach, a citizen of Ukraine, likened this to international Russian airlines, which greatly improved their safety record in the post-Soviet space 30 or more years ago. “Just look it up on Wikipedia,” he says. “They have a separate page for plane crash in the USSR“.
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