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Russia’s “Staggering” Move – Battered By Sanctions, Moscow Turns To Iran For Help On Aircraft Repair & Maintenance

Several Russian airlines operating the Sukhoi Superjet 100s (SSJ 100) warn that they may soon have to ground the planes due to Western sanctions that have stopped the supply and repair of engines of these aircraft, according to a report by Russian media outlet RBC.

General Director of IrAero, an airline based in Irkutsk, Russia, Igor Kobzev warned the regional authorities in his letter on April 5 that due to US and EU sanctions, air carriers operating the domestic Sukhoi Superjet 100 aircraft may not continue to fly them for long for lack of repair and maintenance of their SaM146 engines.

The management of three more Russian airlines flying Superjet voiced similar concerns to RBC, with one of them saying that if the technical support of the engines does not improve, his airline could be forced to stop operations by the fall of 2022.

At present, the Sukhoi Superjet 100 is the only indigenous Russian commercial aircraft in production. The Superjet is the result of a collaboration between designers from “more than 20 world leaders in the aircraft industry,” according to the website of the United Aircraft Corporation (UAC), part of Rostec, a state-owned defense conglomerate.

File Image: Biden and Putin

Sanctions Impact Engine Repair and Maintenance

The SaM146 turbofan engine that powers the Superjet is produced by PowerJet, a joint venture company between Russian engine manufacturer UEC Saturn and French aerospace engine producer Safran. It appears to be the only engine option currently for the SSJ-100s.

In the joint venture, UEC Saturn is responsible for the manufacturing process of the engine’s fan and low-pressure turbine as well as the general assembly and its installation on the SSJ100. While, the French company is responsible for the production of the engine’s high-pressure compressor, the combustion chamber, and the high-pressure turbine.

Russian media reported on March 30 that PowerJet notified its partners based in Russia about the termination of its engine maintenance and repair services following the international sanctions against Russia over the invasion of Ukraine.

A SaM146 turbofan (Wikimedia Commons)

Suspension of the contracts prohibits the shipping of any products to Russian companies, even engines that are being repaired in Russia, and therefore, the UEC Saturn has also been refusing to accept Superjet engines for repairs.

IrAero, which has seven such aircraft in its fleet, is already short of four engines. The Irkutsk airline cannot even receive the paid spare parts that are in the UEC-Saturn warehouse, since they belong to PowerJet, Lapin pointed out in his letter.

In addition, at least two more Russian airlines cannot pick up engines after repairs in France, their managers told RBC.

“This situation has developed because of the sanctions, no one wants to make decisions that run counter to them,” a source close to the UAC told RBC.

The source close to UAC further said that Superjet will most probably stop flying not because of issues with technical support of engines but “due to the lack of such mundane things as wheels and brakes, various sensors and valves” and stressed the urgency for localizing the production and repair of components which if not done by the end of 2022, half of the Superjet fleet may have to be “chained to the ground”.

While officially, Rostec, the parent company of UAC has refuted the news report by RBC.

“We are surprised by IrAero’s statements. As far as we know, the airline has no problems with its flight fleet. All Superjet companies are now in service, the engines on the planes are available, there are no objective reasons to raise a fuss,” the Rostec press service said after the publication of the RBC material.

Sukhoi Superjet 100

Reliance On Foreign Aircraft 

As of mid-2021, there were only 155 SSJ-100s in operation, according to UAC CEO Yury Slyusar. The demand was largely driven by government pressure on Russian airlines to buy them, according to industry analysts.

Western-made planes, including Boeing and Airbus, accounted for about 80 percent of Russia’s fleet at the start of the year, according to Cirium, an aviation data and analytics firm. Following the imposition of sanctions, foreign leasing companies have demanded that these planes be returned to them.

As of March 22, carriers including Pobeda, S7, and Nordwind lost 78 foreign aircraft – about 10% of all foreign aircraft in Russia – through arrests abroad at the request of, the head of the Ministry of Transport said.

Therefore, Russian Airlines such as Aeroflot have halted their international operations making it difficult for non-Russian lessors to get back their 500 plus aircraft worth around $10 billion.

Furthermore, Russia has cleared a rule that allows Russian-based airlines to re-register their western-built aircraft leased by foreign lessors so that they can be utilized on domestic routes.

Help From Iran

Moscow has also turned to Iran for guidance who has plenty of experience with the US and other international sanctions that have prevented the country from receiving spare parts or new planes from international manufacturers for many years, regardless of which the country’s airlines have managed to keep flying.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (R) speaks with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in Tehran on September 7, 2018 (The Office of the Supreme Leader)

Speaking on March 22 at a meeting of the economic policy committee in the upper house of the Russian parliament, transport minister Vitaly Savelyev said “Russia was being guided by Iran’s experience of how to service aircraft in a similar situation.”

The Iranian Airlines having found it impossible to buy new aircraft or spare parts, grounded and cannibalized half of their planes for spare parts to keep others in the air.

Meanwhile, the Russian Ministry of Industry and Trade is working on import substitution for the Superjet that would involve equipping the aircraft with a domestically produced PD-8 engine and replacing 27 other imported aircraft systems.

In early March, Denis Manturov, the head of the Ministry of Industry and Trade, announced the acceleration of work on the creation of a fully localized version of the Superjet aimed at a production capacity of up to 40 such aircraft annually.

The first flight of the Superjet with Russian engines is scheduled for the first quarter of 2023, UAC CEO Yuri Slyusar said in an interview on Russia 24 TV channel in early April. Serial production of such Superjet aircraft will begin in 2024.

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