Russian planes crash as Western sanctions block airline repairs


On a lonely piece of farmland near a forest in Novosibirsk, Siberia, a Ural Airlines Airbus A320 carrying 165 people had to land 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 was unable to fly it.

Ural Airlines is reported to have paid a million rubles (£8,700) to the farmer whose land the aircraft lives on for the privilege.

Ural Airlines Airbus A320 passenger planeUral Airlines Airbus A320 passenger plane

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

It is just the latest example of a series of airline accidents that have occurred in Russia since sanctions have hampered the repair and maintenance of Western aircraft.

In December, a Boeing 737 operated by S7 Airlines had to make an emergency landing in Siberia when its engine burst into flames.

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

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

Safety incidents on Russian planes doubled last year.

In 2022, there were 37 cases, according to the Airliner Crash Data Evaluation Center (JACDEC). Last year, there were 81, more than half of which were linked to technical factors.

The actual total could be much higher, says Jan-Arwed Richter, founder and chief executive of JACDEC.

“These numbers only represent cases that have come to light,” he says. “A dark number of incidents remain unreported.

“Many aircraft are inoperable because they have separated to keep the rest of the fleet in flying condition.”

The Russian blogosphere has been on fire recently over the safety issues, with many blaming the impact of Western sanctions.

One post on the pro-government Telegram channel Nezygar called the restrictions a “crime against civilians”, calling for a multi-million dollar lawsuit against manufacturers who are not supplying parts.

The European Union’s Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has already issued a stern warning about the safety of Russian jets.

“EASA is very concerned about the aviation safety situation in Russia, including safety-critical matters such as how aircraft are maintained or how pilots and maintenance staff are trained,” says Janet Northcote, from the agency.

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


Russian state airline Aeroflot is one of many 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.

“That’s basically almost every type 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 last year,” says Rob Morris, global head of consultancy at aviation analytics firm Cirium.

However, cracks are emerging.

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

When sanctions first came, Russian airlines quickly found ways around them.

One such solution was seeking help from allies abroad, such as Turkey, says Menshenin, which has not imposed any sanctions against Russia.

He says if the Russian plane’s engine needs repairs, the airline can sell it to an airline in Turkey. That airline will then use Western parts to repair it before returning it to Russia.

“Turkey can do the necessary maintenance according to all the flight safety procedures, and then it sells this engine back,” he says. “I was talking to people in Russia who are doing this.”

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

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

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

Commercial airlines around the world operate on slim profit margins of between 1pc and 2pc and in Russia these are being eroded rapidly.

“If your engine repairs become three times more expensive you’re going to really struggle to make ends meet,” Menshenin says.

In addition to financial pressures, sanctions mean that Russian carriers are no longer allowed to operate in the EU, restricting their travel through European airspace.

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

A typical flight from Moscow to Havana in Cuba should be 5,200 nautical miles (5,984 miles).

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

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

Smaller carriers are more affected by sanctions. However, even S7, Russia’s largest private airline, was forced to ground planes.

Analysts fear that the number of accidents will only increase in the country 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,” says Menshinin. “The worst case scenario is that Russian airlines will have to completely abandon the latest types of aircraft.”

The Russian Federal Aviation Agency, S7, Aeroflot and Ural Airlines have been contacted for comment.

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