Ukraine leads bid to revitalize tattered CIS regional network

 - October 8, 2007, 11:27 AM

While the Russian regional airline system struggles to realize some semblance of Western-style development, the former Soviet satellite state of Ukraine has assumed a leading position in the fleet renovation efforts under way throughout the former Soviet Union. The reasons for the Ukraine’s relative success vary, but chief among them is improving access to capital just in time for the introduction of a new regional turboprop–the 52-seat Antonov An-140.

Until March last year, when Ukraine’s Odessa Airlines placed its first An-140 into scheduled service, regional airlines throughout the CIS had taken delivery of fewer than 20 airplanes since 1991. But since state-run leasing company UkrTransLizing took an active role in supporting the An-140 program, marketing activity has accelerated to a fever pitch by CIS standards.

So far placing four of 10 firm-ordered An-140s with Odessa and Aeromost-Kharkov, UkrTransLizing offers comparatively generous acquisition terms, such as 12-percent annual interest rates on 15-year loans. A unit price of $8.5 million for a production-standard airplane with an interior design based on Swiss and French technology (another rarity in the former Soviet Union) adds to the An-140’s appeal. New Ukrainian airline customers for the airplane include Yuzhmashavia, Berkut Air and Eastern Airlines. All told, the immediate market requirement in the Ukraine totals 20 airplanes.

An-140 program managers promise a production run of 300 airplanes, along with spares and services at reasonable prices. Iran’s HESA has assembled three An-140s of 105 planned from Ukrainian kits, but roll-out of the first machine from Russia’s Aviacor factory has been postponed until the end of the year. HESA will supply the five An-140s recently ordered by Air Libya. The Russian assembly line will supply local customers, estimated to represent a market for some 100 of the turboprops.

Weighing in at 31,765 pounds empty versus 28,665 pounds for series aircraft, the first An-140 prototype flies in scheduled service for Odessa, and achieves profitability when it reaches 180 hours a month on domestic routes, according to the airline. Odessa general director Yuri Skoropis said that over the course of a year the airplane logged 1,150 hours and carried more than 14,000 passengers. By contrast, four Yak-40 regional jets carried 16,000 passengers over the same time period.

To make ends meet, Odessa placed a second airplane on longer and much more lucrative international routes, including Kiev-Aleppo, Syria. Although many of the airline’s 20 intra-Ukrainian services do not turn a profit, the domestic network provides important feed for higher-yield markets in Western Europe, Turkey and Russia. Odessa began operations with its second An-140 in April and now wants to add three 80-seat An-148 regional jets–scheduled for certification by the end of next year–to its pair of An-140s.

Sergei Pirozhenko, general director of Aeromost-Kharkov, said domestic flights help maintain load factors on scheduled An-140 service to Moscow and Vienna. Both Odessa and Kharkov plan to open new routes to Western Europe. Unlike Soviet-era designs, the An-140 complies with all current and upcoming ICAO and EU requirements, including ICAO Chapter IV noise limits. The airplane demonstrates an average fuel burn of 1,323 pph with a full passenger load.

Antonov claims that cost of ownership and operation compares quite favorably with that of similar-capacity Western types, although no Western regional aircraft has yet found its way into Ukrainian inventory. Southern Airlines (Yuzhye Avialinii) considered the Embraer ERJ-145, but dropped it in favor of larger Boeing 737-300s after an analysis of respective seat-mile costs disqualified the Brazilian RJs. “Use of small Western jets on our routes is simply not justified,” said general director Yuri Molod. The airline operates two 19-seat Let L-410s, a Tupolev Tu-134 and a Yak-42 regional jet borrowed from Odessa, while the majority of its 22-strong fleet works in Africa, where operations bring in more money.

Ukrainian flag carrier Aeroswit might break the pattern of regionals’ reliance on Eastern bloc airplanes if its plans to take up to 20 second-hand Embraer Brasilias materialize. Earlier the airline ordered five An-140s to carry passengers from small airports to Kiev, from where it flies mainline services to 30 destinations in 20 countries. It must now decide whether to act “unpatriotic” or buy Ukrainian. The airline carried 437,000 passengers in 2001 and 600,000 last year, as revenues grew from $63.4 million to $104 million.

In an effort to further boost regional air transport, Ukraine’s civil aviation authority, Ukraviatsiya, performed an “experiment” in 2001, when it ordered 32 local carriers to double flight frequencies on domestic routes during the summer season while cutting fares in half. The strongest airlines received licenses to operate on lucrative international routes. Last year the strategy proved successful, as domestic traffic rose from 253,000 passengers to 400,000. During the course of the experiment, from July 1 to September 30, Ukrainian regionals flew 144,000 domestic passengers.
In all, the second half of last year saw 254,000 passengers carried. This year the government plans to deploy the price scheme on a larger scale, quadrupling frequencies on important routes and freezing fares at last year’s levels.

Although Ukraine’s economy is recovering, the population’s low income dictates the need for low fares. Early last year an L-410 flew the route between Ukraine’s two largest cities, Kiev and Kharkov, for 350 hryvnia ($68). Over the summer, An-24 service opened for 227 hryvnia ($44), dropping to 170 hryvnia ($33) during the government-imposed fare sale. The demand rose considerably, allowing additional An-140 service for 190 hryvnia ($37).

Aside from the An-140s, the Ukrainian fleet consists of 73 An-24s, 63 Yak-40 regional jets and 43 L-410s, of which 33, 42 and four aircraft, respectively, remain in active service. Annual flight time averages 900 hours for the An-24s and 700 hours for the Yak-40s. Although the Ukrainians expect the An-140 gradually to replace An-24s and Yakovlev regional jets, some grounded L-410s might return to service. Among the Ukrainian L-410s, 24 rolled off the Let assembly line between 1983 and 1985 and another nine after 1986. Most have accumulated between 3,000 and 6,000 flight hours. The company now in control of Let, LZ Aeronautical Industries, issued Kharkov-based repair station Tora authorization to refurbish L-410s. Overhauled aircraft receive new avionics, interior and a 4,800-hour service-life extension. Tora sees a market for restoration of 58 airplanes, including VIP cabin conversions.

The newest An-140 operator, Motor-Sich Avia, took its first An-140 on May 23 and started service in July. Owned by Ukrainian engine manufacturer Motor-Sich, the airline flies An-12 freight charters, delivering airframe kits and Motor-Sich-built TV3-117 engines to the An-140 assembly line in Isfahan, Iran. Motor-Sich Avia also flies scheduled passenger services linking Zaporozhie, Berdyansk and Kerch with Kiev, Moscow and Lvov using Yak-40s, An-24s and Yak-42s. The An-140 started operations from Zaporozhie to Kiev and Moscow. It will also fly charters to Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece and the United Arab Emirates.

Russian pilots envy their Ukrainian colleagues’ An-140s as they arrive in Moscow airports. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a dozen new regional aircraft have entered the Russian fleet, including six Pratt & Whitney Canada-powered An-38-100 turboprops with Vostok Airlines, NAPO-Aviatrans and AlRosa. Forecasters believe the new An-38-200 variant, powered with Russian-built OMKB TVD-20M turboprops, will fare better than its Western-powered sibling, as the price drops from $5 million to $3.5 million. The An-38-200 received a complimentary type certificate last year, and three airframes slated for delivery to Siberian carrier Kemerovo Aviation are undergoing preparations for revenue services.

Elsewhere in the CIS, new Uzbeki airline Vyborg took delivery of three Ilyushin Il-114 turboprops from government-controlled UzbAviaLizing last year. Built at the TAPO plant in Uzbekistan’s capital of Tashkent, the 48-seat turboprops originally flew for Uzbekistan Airlines, but compared badly to the carriers’ three Avro RJ85s and soon went out of service. The primary problem centered on their semi-experimental Klimov TV7-117S engines, which experienced premature turbine wear. This year the airline started operations on the first of three firm-ordered Il-114-100s powered by Pratt & Whitney Canada PW127H turboprops. It also holds options for another seven.
Vyborg, meanwhile, chose to stay with the TV7s, mainly because the Klimov factory is located within minutes of the airline’s home base in St. Petersburg, and the engine maker agreed to a power-by-hour maintenance contract.