By David Gauthier-Villars and Gleb Stolyarov
DUBAI (Reuters) – An Airbus of Ural Airlines landed in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg on November 14 last year. Then he remained grounded on the asphalt.
Three days later, a spare part critical to navigation systems with a declared value of more than a quarter of a million dollars, made by US company Northrop Grumman, arrived for the aircraft, Russian customs records show.
A week later, on Nov. 24, the A320 departed for Moscow and has been busy ferrying passengers across Russia and Central Asia ever since, flight records show.
Despite Western sanctions designed to deter Russian airlines from purchasing parts for their Airbus and Boeing jets, since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Ural Airlines has imported more than 20 of its US-made devices, it appears. from the customs data.
All told, from May last year – when most US and European trade restrictions and export bans on Ukraine were in place – at least $1.2 billion worth of aircraft parts flowed to Russian airlines until the end of June this year. records show.
The equipment ranged from essential items needed to keep a jet aircraft airworthy – such as the Northrop Grumman devices, cabin pressure valves, cockpit displays and landing gear – to more mundane spare parts, such as coffee makers, flight attendant telephones and toilet seats.
The customs records show that the parts came to Russia through intermediaries in countries such as Tajikistan, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Turkey, China and Kyrgyzstan – none of which have approved Western sanctions against Russia.
The total figure of $1.2 billion underestimates the total value of aircraft parts imported during the period reviewed by Reuters, as it includes only shipments destined directly for Russian airlines or their maintenance units – and not aircraft parts shipped to other companies in Russia. sent.
Oleg Panteleev, head of Moscow aviation think tank AviaPort, said Russian airlines have “solved the problem” of operating under Western sanctions.
“At first there was a shock, nobody knew what to do,” he told Reuters. “After two to three months, new supply channels were found and after six to nine months quite a few alternatives emerged, which enabled prices and delivery times to be reduced.”
Ural Airlines deputy director Kirill Skuratov declined to comment on how the Russian airline obtained its spare parts. “I’m definitely not going to tell you that,” he told Reuters. “It’s unnecessary information.”
After reviewing the list compiled by Reuters, Northrop Grumman said it had not identified any sales or repair services provided by the company to Russian entities. Northrop Grumman said it has “robust processes and procedures to help ensure compliance with all applicable export and sanctions-related laws and regulations.”
The US government said its export controls and those of its allies had seriously affected the Russian aviation sector.
“We will continue to vigorously enforce our controls by eradicating and disrupting illegal networks, prosecuting individuals who evade restrictions, and engaging directly with industry and foreign governments to ensure compliance,” said a spokesman for the Ministry of Health. Trade.
A European Union official said the bloc was working closely with countries that had imposed similar trade restrictions to ensure they were not circumvented.
“Systems are being set up in some countries to monitor, control and block re-exports,” the official said.
It is fair to say that Western sanctions have made life more difficult for the Russian aviation sector.
In mid-2022, aviation industry sources described how some Russian airlines dismantled a number of aircraft for parts. And Russian carrier S7 Airlines said in June last year it had to scrap plans to launch a low-cost carrier because it was unable to take delivery of the Airbus aircraft it had ordered.
Like its American rival Boeing, the European aircraft manufacturer cut ties with its Russian customers when sanctions came into effect.
But as of May 1 this year, Russian airlines had 541 Western aircraft on active duty or under maintenance, according to data collected by Swiss aviation intelligence agency ch-aviation. That’s more or less on par with pre-war, if we take into account the 75 planes leased by Russian airlines and repossessed by their foreign owners, Ch-aviation data shows.
According to the Russian federal statistics agency Rosstat, Russian airlines carried 10.1 million passengers in June, compared to 8.87 million in June 2022 and 11.1 million in June 2021.
Without Western planes, Russian airlines would have to downsize massively, as they only have about 150 Russian-made passenger jets in their fleet, according to data from ch-aviation.
The Russian Ministry of Commerce and Civil Aviation Authority did not respond to messages asking for comment.
Before the trade restrictions, Ural Airlines, Aeroflot, S7 and other Russian airlines relied on maintenance support from global companies such as Germany’s Lufthansa Technik.
When these companies stopped providing services — Lufthansa Technik said it has suspended sales to Russia from February 28, 2022 — Russian airlines turned to a pool of much smaller suppliers.
For example, according to customs records, in April 2022, S7’s maintenance unit, S7 Engineering, began importing parts from a company in Moldova called Air Rock Solutions.
The first shipment was water filters for Airbus kitchens with a declared value of $1,700. Over the next 14 months, the S7 received at least $1.23 million worth of parts from Air Rock, the records show.
Ivan Melnicov, CEO of Air Rock and another aircraft parts distributor in Moldova called Aerostage Services, denied selling the products to Russia. He said most of his clients were in the UAE and Kyrgyzstan, among others.
“Doing business with Russian companies is impossible from Moldova simply because their banks are banned in Moldova and payments are not processed,” Melnicov told Reuters. “We are not interested in losing our local and international partners for short-term revenue.”
Most of the shipments listed in the Russian customs records as coming from Air Rock and Aerostage followed circuitous routes, via the UAE or Kyrgyzstan. When asked if this could indicate that his customers in those countries had diverted their deliveries to Russian airlines, the Moldovan businessman did not answer.
S7 and Aeroflot did not respond to messages asking for comment.
NOSE TO TAIL SERVICES
The serial number listed in the Russian customs records for the Northrop Grumman device sent to Yekaterinburg last year shows that the part was manufactured in October 2008 and used on several aircraft, including one in Saudi Arabia six years ago. according to an industry source with access to maintenance databases.
While the customs records don’t list the name of the company that shipped the device in November, they do show how more of the same critical U.S. parts, equipped with high-tech laser gyroscopes, reached Urals Airlines during the 14-month period reviewed by Reuters.
For example, in July 2022, one was shipped via the UAE to Ural Airlines by Istikloliyat 20, a civil engineering company based in Tajikistan. In September 2022, another Tajik civil engineering company, Kafolati Komil, also shipped one of the parts to Russia via the UAE, the records show.
Mahmadbashir Yakubov, CEO of Istikloliyat 20, did not respond to phone messages asking for comment. Reuters was unable to reach Komilchon Yakubov, the CEO of Kafolati Komil.
Some shipments of Northrop Grumman parts to Ural Airlines that went through the UAE were handled by a company called Skyparts FZCO, the customs records show.
Skyparts, founded in June 2022 and registered in a one-room office in one of Dubai’s free economic zones, says on its website that it was founded by aviation professionals and provides customers with “nose-to-tail” support for their aircraft.
Asked about the shipments of the Northrop Grumman device, Skyparts manager Saeed Abdulloev told Reuters he was familiar with the part and confirmed that the Dubai company was doing business with Tajik companies, including Istikloliyat 20.
He said Skyparts purchased one of the Northrop Grumman parts from a US supplier, but denied ever sending it to Russia. He refused to identify the American company.
HUSBAND AND WIFE
One Russian airline, Nordwind Airlines, appears to have used family ties to buy parts for the 12 Airbus and 15 Boeing planes in its fleet, customs records show.
According to company records owned by Russian entrepreneur Karine Bukrey, the airline imported hundreds of parts from Ramses Turizm. Located in the Turkish resort of Antalya, Ramses Turizm is owned by Bukrey’s husband, Ramazan Akpinar.
Nordwind and Bukrey did not respond to messages asking for comment.
Akpinar contacted Reuters on April 4 this year and confirmed that he owned Ramses Turizm and was married to Bukrey. He did not answer questions about the export of aircraft parts to Nordwind.
The Russian records show that Nordwind stopped receiving parts from Ramses Turizm three days after Reuters requested it. However, the airline continued to import parts from another Turkish company, Na Havacilik ve Teknik, also based in Antalya.
Reuters could not reach Nusret Alper, who founded Na Havacilik in August 2022, for comment.
According to customs records, Nordwind also imported parts through its maintenance unit, NW Technic. Chief Executive Valery Pashaev told Reuters his unit focused solely on aircraft maintenance and was not involved in procuring parts.
“People bring me parts and tell me where to install them,” Pashaev said. “I take the parts and install them.”
(Additional reporting by Lisa Barrington in Dubai and Maurice Tamman in New York; editing by David Clarke and Daniel Flynn)