Russia Turns to Cannibalizing Aircraft to Keep Jets in the Air

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An Airbus A321-211 aircraft of Russian airline Aeroflot with registration VP-BOE is seen in the long term parking for planes of Geneva Airport on March 25, 2022.

An Airbus A321-211 aircraft of Russian airline Aeroflot with registration VP-BOE is seen in the long term parking for planes of Geneva Airport on March 25, 2022.
Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP (Getty Images)

Russia hasn’t been able to import replacement parts for its fleet of commercial planes since March and now are beginning the possibly dangerous process of taking critical parts from other, weaker jets to squeeze out a few more miles in still functional aircraft.

Russian airlines lease their aircraft from western companies. Those lease contracts dissolved as sanctions against the country over its invasion of Ukraine mounted in March. As the deadline to return the aircraft came and went, many companies in the EU gave their aircraft up for lost. Some $10 billion in aircraft was deemed a total loss, the largest theft of aircraft in history.

But it wasn’t just Russian airlines keeping the planes that made them complete write-offs. Critical aircraft replacement parts are not reaching the country due to trade sanctions. Without these parts directly from the manufacturer with strict tracking via serial numbers and maintenance records, these aircraft would render the planes unsalvageable anyway.

Experts have warned the sanctions would create an untenable situation for Russia for months, and we’ve now reached a critical juncture, according to Reuters:

At least one Russian-made Sukhoi Superjet 100 and an Airbus A350, both operated by Aeroflot, are currently grounded and being disassembled, one source familiar with the matter said.

[…]

Equipment was being taken from a couple of Aeroflot’s Boeing 737s and Airbus A320s, as the carrier needs more spare parts from those models for its other Boeing 737s and Airbus A320s, the source said.

Russian-assembled Sukhoi Superjets are also heavily dependent on foreign parts. An engine has already been removed from one Superjet to allow another Superjet to continue flying, the first source said.

To be sure, engines are frequently swapped between aircraft and are usually supplied under separate contracts, industry experts said. They are not considered part of the core airframe.

It is “only a matter of time” before Russia-based planes are cannibalised, a Western aviation industry source said.

Eighty percent of the Russian carrier Aeroflot’s fleet is comprised of Aerobus and Boeing planes. Some 15 percent of that fleet have not flown since late July. Newer jets need constant updates to keep flying, and parts inevitably wear out and then run out. Experts told Reuters that within a year of sanctions the majority of Russia’s passenger jets may become unusable. Russia’s plan is to cannibalize a third of its fleet to keep the other planes in the air until at least 2025.

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