Russian air carriers avoided radical fleet reductions during the economic crisis of 2008-09. Some even kept adding new aircraft throughout the difficult period. Now that the market is recovering, most of the country’s airlines are comfortable with their capacities — and those confident that the growth of passenger numbers will continue are actively buying new equipment.
Western-built types are gradually replacing Soviet-made aircraft in the fleets of Russian airlines. This trend is continuing into 2010, with air carriers increasingly opting for foreign airliner models. The demand for aircraft jointly manufactured by Russian and CIS companies remains comparatively low.
Aeroflot, Russia’s largest airline, this year has received its 10th Airbus A330 long-range widebody, along with the 33rd example of the A320 (the airline’s total A319/320/321 family fleet now stands at over 60 aircraft). The first A330 deliveries coincided with the 2008-09 winter schedule – that proved to be the most difficult period for airlines, with passenger numbers steadily declining. The market has bounced back, however, leading to an increase in the load factor for Aeroflot’s new aircraft. Also this year, the carrier expects to get its first examples of the Sukhoi Superjet 100 regional airliner whose deliveries have repeatedly slipped in the past. In fact, Aeroflot is unlikely to start revenue operations with these Russian-built airliners until next year.
Russia’s third largest air carrier S7 Airlines and its sister company Globus (both subsidiaries of S7 Group) have not been adding new aircraft. Instead, S7 has been working to increasing the effectiveness of its existing fleet. Having retired all its Soviet-built airliners, it is now contemplating doing the same to its remaining Airbus A310s before year-end. Although S7 has seen its passenger numbers drop by 32% over the past years, it has managed to secure a 26% increase in revenues, and 32% in profit.
UTair Aviation has been the most active in expanding its fleet. It began operating two new types this year — the Boeing 757-200 (UTair has two such airliners at the moment) and the 50-seat Bombardier CRJ200 regional jet. The carrier explains its choice of the 757-200 by the desire to increase its presence on the charter market. It says the two Boeings have been "taken on lease", but does not disclose the specific details of the transaction. Market observers believe the airliners may have been purchased by major tour operator Anex Tour, who then leased it out to UTair. Another Russian tour operator, Pegas Touristik, did a similar thing in its time by handing several airliners over to Orenburg-based Orenair carrier. The reason for such kind of cooperation with established carriers is that tour operators do not always find it profitable to launch a dedicated airline.
UTair began operating its CRJ200s in April 2010. It currently has six such airliners of the total 15 on order, which are meant to replace the carrier’s Tupolev Tu-154s. The fleet expansion measures have already brought UTair a considerable increase in passenger traffic, which grew by over 30% in the first eight months of 2010 – faster than the average growth rate across the market.
Another of the country’s top five largest airlines, Transaero, has also been enjoying fast-paced growth in passenger numbers. Unlike UTair, which is primarily focused on the domestic market and therefore chooses medium-sized aircraft, Transaero opts for widebodies to support its international tourist services. The airline added a seventh Boeing 777 in September this year, bringing its total fleet of different airliner types, mostly Boeings, to 55. Transaero first launched 777 services in the spring of 2009; until then the carrier’s widebody fleet consisted of Boeing 747s and 767s (it currently operates 12 of either type). The airline plans to further expand its services by introducing flights from Moscow to New York and Miami.
Rossiya Airlines has been growing at a slower pace than the other top five carriers. It made headlines this year by being the first in Russia to launch revenue services with the Russian-Ukrainian Antonov An-148 regional jet. The carrier received its first two An-148s in 2009, adding a further three in 2010. The initial deliveries slipped, but the fifth aircraft came from the Voronezh VASO factory precisely on schedule.
Another major carrier, Orenair, also has a Russian-built aircraft — a pre-owned one. In late April it started operating a Tupolev Tu-204-100. Orenair says the type is to replace the Tu-154s it is currently retiring. As of late April, the airline’s mainline fleet included five Tu-154s, eight Tu-134s, seven Boeing 737-800s, four 737-500s, and two 737-400s. The first Orenair Tu-204-100 was operated since 1996 by a succession of carriers including Perm Airlines, S7, Red Wings and Aviastar-Tu. Based on the operational results for the first six months of 2010, Orenair came in third in terms of international passengers carried, behind Aeroflot and Transaero. This was largely thanks to the revival of the tourism market.
Russia’s new low-fares carrier Avianova has also been expanding fleet. It launched with just two A320s in August 2009; now the airline has five of the type. Avianova is nourishing further fleet expansion plans, but has put the process on hold due to the recent changes in the Russian customs regulations caused, among other things, by the setting-up of a customs union between Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus.
Regional airlines have also managed to acquire more aircraft in 2010, albeit from the secondary market. For years these smaller carriers could not afford aircraft of greater seating capacity, but recent developments — such as the lifting of customs duties on certain classes of airliners — have given them a chance to expand their fleets. Ak Bars Aero, formerly known as Bugulma Air Enterprise, took delivery of its first Bombardier CRJ200 in April. By July it already had five such aircraft. The airline operates them on routes between Moscow, Penza, Kazan and Naberezhnye Chelny. Voronezh-based Polet Airlines, which has been operating Saab 2000 turboprops for years, got its first Saab 340 in July. Aircraft of this model service Polet’s routes between Moscow, Belgorod, Lipetsk, Ulyanovsk, and Voronezh.
The latest easing of the customs restrictions for foreign-made aircraft came in August 2010, when the customs union commission for Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan temporarily lifted import duty on passenger aircraft seating between 111 and 160, and also more than 219 people. To be exempt, an aircraft has to have been contracted before 31 December 2013. The first step towards easing the customs restrictions had been to cancel import duty for aircraft accommodating fewer than 50 passengers; the cancellation was later extended to cover airliners seating more than 300 passengers.