Russian Airlines Maneuver to Keep International Services Alive

 - May 2, 2022, 9:00 AM
An Aeroflot SSJ100 lands at Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport. Russian airlines have used the regional jets to connect Moscow with international destinations via Sochi in the southern part of the federation. (Photo: Vladimir Karnozov)

Experiencing an acute shortage of mainline jetliners cleared for international services, Russian carriers are collaborating on developing new hubs in the south of Russia from where the locally made Irkut SSJ100 can reach popular destinations in Asia and Northern Africa.

The most convenient location is Sochi (served by the airport in Adler, Russia), from where the SSJ100-95LR can fly as far as Mumbai (4,150 km) and Goa International (4,470 km) in India, while the shorter-legged SSJ100-95B can reach Istanbul, Ankara, Cairo, Jerusalem, Muscat, and Almaty.  

Adler lies 1,400 km south of Moscow and once served as a destination airport for holidaymakers going to resorts on the Black Sea coast. After the European Union closed its airspace to Russian carriers on February 26, banned deliveries of airplanes and components to Russian companies, and demanded the return of all leased aircraft, Adler drew interest from airlines as a hub connecting Russia with the outside world. Tourism agencies selling packages to Russian holidaymakers—who account for most of the 10 million international passengers local airlines hope to serve this year—encouraged the trend.

Unlike a dozen other airports in Russia's south, temporarily closed due to their close proximity to the war zone in Ukraine, Sochi continues to operate without restrictions. Airlines fly passengers to the Adler airport first, using an Airbus or Boeing airplane—which Western owners can confiscate outside of Russia—and then transport them on Superjets to final destinations.

Various Russian airlines and lessors own 148 SSJ100s, including Aeroflot and its branch Rossiya. In April, the two commenced international services out of Sochi and invited other local companies to join hands in the effort. So far, 24 carriers have signed a framework agreement with Russia's Transport Clearing House, which manages financial transactions between them. Jointly, the airlines connect 34 Russian cities to Sochi and offer their customers the option to continue traveling further to foreign destinations. In total, they plan to open 246 new services via Sochi. Apart from the Aeroflot Group members, signatories include Ural Airlines, NordWind, NordStar, Azimuth, Yamal, and UTair.

Azimuth, an all-Superjet-airline, has acquired permission to fly daily to Dubai, Istanbul, and Antalya from Sochi and two other airports in southern Russia: Makhachkala (MCX, 630 km to the east of Adler) and Caucasus Mineral Waters (MRV, 267 km). The new routes come as an addition to those already linking the trio to various destinations in Kazakhstan, Kirgizstan, and the UAE.

The services mainly transport passengers flown into southern Russia by other carriers, while those willing to travel directly can fly non-stop on an SSJ100-95LR from Moscow to Kazakhstan (Nursultan, Almaty) and other former Soviet republics in Central Asia. By opening new international routes, Azimuth has found a use for its SSJ100s that currently cannot fly from the airline's main bases in Rostov-upon-Don and Krasnodar, which remain closed because of their proximity to the Ukrainian front line.

Whereas Azimuth and other SSJ100 operators have given impetus to international services, those who operate Airbuses and Boeings try to focus on domestic routes. On April 27, Ural Airlines announced the immediate cancellation of all flights to Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Uzbekistan until October 29. The move came after the EU placed the company on its safety blacklist, along with 20 other Russian carriers for its incompliance with international safety standards. Ural Airlines placed 50 out of its 54 aircraft into the national register, a move considered unlawful by U.S. and European lessors, which now seek ways to get back their wares.

A similar situation faces many other Russian carriers, prompting them to restrict flights to within the home country and those that guarantee trouble-free operations into their airports. UTair, whose Boeings it either owns or operates on a financial lease, has increased frequencies to Azerbaijan and Armenia and commenced new services to those countries from Sochi and three other airports in Russia's south.