The Russian government and industry have begun formulating a program to convert grounded Tupolev Tu-204 passenger jets into freighters in an effort to prolong the type’s commercial service. Upon conversion of the surviving narrowbodies, which entered service in 1995, the Tu-204s would enter the fleet of the Russian Post’s aviation arm. The nationwide postal and mailing service operator belongs to the central government and cites “an immediate requirement” for ten more Tu-204Cs. If successful, the conversion program might entail completion of several more airframes at UAC’s Aviastar plant in Ulianovsk using stock parts at the plant.
Late last year, Red Wings—the last Russian airline to operate Tupolev twinjets on scheduled passenger services and regular charters—withdrew its eight Tu-204-100s from active service. Red Wings CEO Eugeny Klycharev explained that the 210-seat Tu-204-100 failed to compete economically with the Airbus A321, a fact proven during two years of their simultaneous operations on the airline’s route network. Red Wings withdrew the Tupolev earlier than planned; initial plans called for the replacement of the Tu-204 with the MC-21.
Meanwhile, the Russian Post insists the Tu-204C freighters it has flown since December 2016 have proved themselves economically viable. On March 4, the operator announced a decision to expand aviation services into China by adding Nanjing to the already flown Harbin, Hangzhou, and Zhengzhou routes. Today, the Russian Post employs two Tu-204Cs on Chinese services. China generates more than 90 percent of parcel traffic into Russia, and its share stands to grow further through expansion of mutual trade and favorable conditions enjoyed by internet outlets.
Last year, the Russian Post reported a record number of incoming parcels it processed, the growth largely attributed to the Chinese inflow, which increased 26 percent. The company’s air arm began Tu-204C operations with two aircraft leased from Ilyushin-Finance on domestic routes in December 2016. It opened routes into China in late 2017.
Apart from serving with the Russian Post, Tu-204 freighters fly with Aviastar-TU, Cairo Aviation, and Cubana. Passenger services on the type commenced in 1996 and continue with North Korea’s Air Koryo and Russian governmental bodies. Since 1989, the type’s annual production rate fluctuated between one and six, peaking at 10 airframes in 2008. Since 2014, Aviastar has assembled nine new Tu-204-family aircraft.