Russian regionals languish in persistent hard times

 - November 26, 2007, 12:56 PM

Despite signs of revival last year, when traffic rose by 6- to 8 percent, the Russian regional air transport system remains in dire straits. Lack of appreciable demand in the market, aging fleets and the absence of reasonably priced capital in the country’s banking sector have conspired to frustrate recent efforts to move the industry out of its doldrums.

As the country’s economy struggles to adapt to a free-market system, a glut of serviceable Soviet-era airplanes sit in storage. Meanwhile, the seating capacity of the country’s regional fleet inherited from Soviet times (250 Tupolev Tu-134s, 360 Antonov An-24s, 340 Yakovlev Yak-40s, 80 Yak-42s and up to 200 Let L-410s and An-28s) exceeds market demand, thus inhibiting sale of new aircraft.

Except for a dozen Yak-42s that entered service with Gazprom, LukOil and MChS as corporate transports, no new regional jets have been sold in Russia over the past 10 years. In the whole of the CIS, only Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have acquired new regional airplanes–the Uzbekistan Khavo Yullari bought three Avro RJ-85s in 1997 and more recently ordered up to 10 Ilyushin Il-114s produced locally at the TAPO factory, while Tajikistan’s flag carrier took delivery of its first Boeing 717-200 this past summer. Of all the new turboprops, only the 27-seat TPE331-14-powered An-38-100 scored, with three delivered to Vostok, two to Alrosa and one to NAPO-Aerotrans, leading Antonov to focus on less expensive An-38-200s with indigenous OMKB TVD20 engines.

Russia’s regional aircraft fly mostly inside the CIS, while the Tu-134 sometimes appears in Western Europe. But upcoming ICAO Chapter 3 noise regulations will ban the aircraft from European airspace next April. Other types do not have sufficient range and speed to fly effectively on European routes, except perhaps the Yak-42, which meets Chapter 3 with noise-suppressing panels installed.

In point-to-point scheduled service, Yak-40s and An-24s are often unprofitable but they play an important and irreplaceable role in supplying passengers to hubs, from where they travel abroad on larger airplanes. Last year more than 13 million passengers flew on inner-Russian services. Tupolev jets account for 60 percent of the ASMs, divided between the 160-seat Tu-154 and 76-seat Tu-134 at 50- and 10- percent respectively. Tupolev designs are likely to dominate the fleet into the foreseeable future with help from the new 210-seat Tu-204 and 102-seat Tu-334.

Aeroflot, with 12 Tu-134s, boasts the highest utilization of the fleet, almost twice that of airlines with larger RJ fleets. Last year the flag carrier transported 1.4 million passengers on inner routes, accounting for some 19 percent of its income, or $115 million. Aeroflot currently carries 11 percent of the traffic inside Russia, but plans call for an increase of its share to 30 percent in the next few years. The Tu-134 plays an immense part in the expansion plans as the only suitable vehicle to establish new routes before more spacious aircraft take over.

With two or three aircraft in maintenance or on standby, Aeroflot normally flies nine or 10 operable Tu-134s in scheduled services at a time, while charters account for 1,850 hr a month. Valery Mitusov, deputy commander of the Tu-134 detachment, said the Tu-134 fleet is loaded to technical capacity, and sometimes a deficit of airplanes is felt. In the latter case Aeroflot hires a couple of aircraft from other operators, including the largest Tu-134 user, Komiinteravia, which owns 30 airplanes. Aeroflot operates the last Tu-134s built during the first half of the 1980s, and the airline estimates these can continue in service until 2007 or 2008. Mitusov does not think the airline would replace them with newer airplanes such as the Tu-334 or Sukhoi/Ilyushin RRJ any earlier than 2007.

Aeroflot Tu-134s fly 30 scheduled routes originating in Moscow’s Sheremetievo, with flight duration varying from 40 min (Moscow-Nizhny Novgorod) to 4 hr (Narian-Mar, Arkhangelsk). In summer the load factor balloons to 90 percent, while throughout the year the figure averages 64 percent. Unlike other types, Aeroflot frequently flies the Tu-134s in winter, often replacing Tu-154s when ticket sales drop.

Regional carriers, with their heavy dependence on business travelers, generally suffer less from seasonal peaks than do major airlines. Many regionals report merely a 20- to 30-percent rise in passenger numbers in summer, while major airlines often experience 200- to 250-percent increases. This phenomenon arises because leisure travelers usually opt for railways or road transport for short trips, while summer vacationers to more distant destinations choose airlines.

On the resale or lease market, the fast-flying Tu-134 and Yak-42 command the highest prices of all regional jets, and a Tu-134 for hire is much harder to find than a Yak-40 or An-24. The phenomenon can be illustrated by average flight time logged yearly by each airframe on the list: the Tu-134 averages 700 hr, the Yak-42 750 hr, the An-24 400 hr and the  Yak-40 260 hr. The low use rates for the two latter types result from their excessive numbers, to the extent that airlines ground some of their fleets. Surgut, Siberia-based TyumenAviaTrans (TAT), for example, operates all seven of its Tu-154s and both Tu-134s in its fleet, while it flies just nine out of 22 Yak-40s and eight of 11 An-24s.

Despite Russia’s well publicized economic difficulties, skilled airline managers can make a profit with outdated Soviet-era regional airplanes. For example, even though the Yak-40 and An-24 are generally considered “heavy” to operate profitably, such well organized airlines as SibAviaTrans (SiAT), based in Krasnoyarsk, Central Siberia, achieve profitability with 60-percent average load factors and yearly utilization in the region of 1,000 flight hours.

Although Ilyushin, Antonov and Tupolev see a large market for the newly developed Il-114, An-140 and Tu-334, none of the three has made much progress with sales so far. The An-38-100 sells because of its relatively low sticker price of $4.5 million, while airlines have difficulty finding capital to acquire the former three, priced at $6- to $7 million, $7- to $8 million and $15 million, respectively. A lack of investment resources forces the airlines to stay with fuel-thirsty designs of the Soviet era: the popular 76-seat Tu-134 consumes fuel at a rate of 5,730-pph, compared with 3,705 pph for the more modern 102-seat Tu-334. RSK MiG, which has launched production of the Tupolev twinjet at its Voronin Production center, believes that if leasing programs begin to work, it can sell 130 Tu-334s in CIS markets over the next 10 years, pointing out that Aeroflot, Pulkovo and Samara have all expressed an interest in taking the airplanes after it acquires type certification as planned in 2003.