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Confession

Outdated charts and planes stripped for parts: An Aeroflot pilot on flying in times of war

The war in Ukraine has caused Russian airlines to make considerably fewer flights, but aircraft maintenance is still a challenge: replacing broken parts often means having to disassemble other planes. Most importantly, the sanctions have cut Russia off from international en-route chart updates, which makes landing dangerous. The Insider spoke to an Aeroflot pilot, who wished to remain anonymous, to find out the implications of the sanctions for Russian civil aviation on the example of the nation's backbone airline.

ALL CARDS
  • How Aeroflot managers and employees feel about war

  • Airlines downsizing and closing down

  • Seeking employment abroad

  • Air maintenance issues and shortages of parts

  • Replacing foreign planes with Russian ones

How Aeroflot managers and employees feel about war

The airline's executives have not stated their official position on the events. De facto, the language of technical meetings includes such phrases as “foe equipment” and “foe software”. Flight crews have not been debriefed. Rumors abound. The only information we get is plane registration updates, guidelines on how to fly with outdated navigation systems, and so on.

As to pilots’ attitudes, they are no more homogeneous than society at large. We have a very healthy policy of never talking politics, let alone military matters, in the cockpit because safety trumps everything. Besides, two Utair helicopter pilots have recently had a fistfight because of disagreement over the war during their break between flights in Tyumen.

A lot of people think: “We survived the 1990s, so we’ll manage this time. It will only be tough for a few months.” However, I think our situation is dire. Russia has put itself in a position that will take many generations to undo. Aviation is no exception, unfortunately.

Airlines downsizing and closing down

Many large players have closed down for good, like AirBridgeCargo. They started the downsizing with copilots, sending them on leaves, then unpaid leaves, and eventually laying them off. The conditions were more or less decent – two salaries, in line with the labor law. That said, a pilot's fixed salary is only a small share of their income; the rest depends on the number of flights. Therefore, the company simply paid two small fixed salaries and the outstanding vacation pay.

A few more companies also downsized. Aeroflot, in the meantime, seems to have gotten ample funding from the state “to keep us going”, just as it did during the pandemic. From what I know, the company was required to keep on at least 90% of its headcount. Now the conditions are similar, so there have been no layoffs so far. Those leaving on their own are within the remaining 10%.

Seeking employment abroad

Russian pilots struggle to find foreign employment these days. Firstly, many countries restrict flight personnel to their nationals or at least permanent residents. Other countries like China or Vietnam have no such restrictions but have other requirements. Even before the war, it was hard enough to find employment there, but now it's gotten worse. Furthermore, Vietnamese air traffic is incomparable to the capacity of Russian airlines, so I think they have filled all the positions they had. In 2019, when many wanted to leave for China, the Federal Air Transport Agency – acting on instructions from the Ministry of Transport – refused to confirm pilots’ licenses for foreign use. It was a gross violation, of course. As I understand, they sometimes confirm licenses now because they have stopped caring: too many pilots are leaving anyway.

Air maintenance issues and shortages of parts

Air maintenance varies in scope: sometimes it is limited to gauging oil levels in the engines. Every few days, we check tire pressure and inflate the tires if needed. Every six years, a plane is disassembled for assessment almost entirely. Only the frame remains, and afterwards, the plane is reassembled with new parts wherever necessary.

Russia has the capacity for this type of comprehensive maintenance: for instance, the Sibir airline has done it for quite a while at their own facilities, and so has Aeroflot. I should point out, however, that they lacked the resources to cover their maintenance needs in full, so they serviced some of their planes in Europe. This is no longer an option, but we are using much fewer planes than before the war.

In theory, we could handle regular maintenance domestically. However, any damage might pose a problem. For instance, when a plane was severely damaged in Kaliningrad a few years back, the French came to fix it. The repairs were major, but the plane was eventually restored and made many more flights.

In theory, we could handle regular maintenance domestically. However, any damage might pose a problem

A more pertinent question is where to get spare parts. Some parts are replaced at regular intervals, while others are replaced on condition. The head of Aeroflot's department for parts has recently reported that we have sufficient stocks – except for a few specific parts. To replace those, they have already started taking two planes apart. Aeroflot has around 100 A320 planes. Half of them are making regular flights, while the rest is in storage because we don’t need so many.

It is technically possible to fix a plane using parts from another plane. Air maintenance will continue for as long as we have enough donor planes. Russian aviation is under pressure, but planes will keep flying for a long time. If we only use half of the planes we have, there are more than enough parts to last us. After all, where are we supposed to fly if 60% of our flights were international?

Only about 40% of destinations remain available, and ticket prices are through the roof, so flying isn’t too popular. Therefore, we can keep stripping planes for parts to keep other planes in flying shape for a long time. It's hard to say for how long. A year, maybe: sooner or later, we're bound to run out of something. It will start with smaller parts, but large parts will be a problem too. However, if the management decides to procure parts at three times the price through China, planes will keep flying.

Russian aviation is under pressure, but planes will keep flying for a long time

For the moment, the biggest challenge is navigation. The global navigation system is a living organism. It keeps changing, adding radio equipment, and removing older items. Routes change, and so do flying rules.

Many airlines used Lido (Lufthansa) or Jeppesen systems as navigation data providers. They offered digital charts and airport schemes for all airports, including Russian ones. We haven't seen Russian charts for a while now. They probably exist but we aren’t used to the standards they are based on.

None of our charts have been updated since February 24. Updates are aligned with so-called AIRAC cycles: a new round of updates is published every 28 days. We have been cut off from this process completely. In response, Russia decided to halt all changes, except critical ones like equipment failure. They said they would not make any changes so that we can keep navigating with pre-war schemes and charts.

Aviation is simple: if something malfunctions, for instance, if a light indicator goes off, we don't have to stop the flight immediately because losses would be immense. We can keep flying for another ten days without this indicator. Outdated databases fell under the same “deferred defect” category with an acceptable delay of ten days. Since updating was no longer an option, Aeroflot simply altered this category. I’m not sure their decision was legitimate, but they issued a directive allowing us to keep flying with outdated navigation charts for another 120 days. We also have the right to prolong this term once, so the overall term has been extended to eight months. In a nutshell, they are forced to violate regulations, bending over backward to stay airborne.

Replacing foreign planes with Russian ones

Russia also contributed to the manufacturing of foreign planes but mainly by providing raw materials, such as titanium. It's a long-standing tradition: we have been good at mining, since the Soviet times; we have lots of titanium and it's easy to process. Titanium was once used in Soviet submarines, so its production was large-scale and efficient. Russia put this legacy to good use. Even though titanium is not rare, Russia mines a lot and apparently maintains low production costs, so Russian titanium can be found in almost every plane worldwide.

Nevertheless, while they can find a replacement for our titanium, we would be hard-pressed to replace their planes. As for the fabled Sukhoi Superjet planes, we never manufactured them. The plant in Komsomolsk-on-Amur only assembled them – without much success if you look at the statistics. This leads us to the conclusion that Russia has no domestically manufactured planes.

Russia has no domestically manufactured planes

Granted, there is the [Irkut] MC-21, which was certified but comes with a barrage of issues. Its creators had the ambition of building a composite plane without in-house composite manufacturing or the expertise of working with composites. Making a composite wing was a huge mistake. If a large bird hits it, for example, the wing will have to be replaced entirely. In any case, we cannot expect the mass production of MC-21 to begin anytime soon. It is essentially impossible to release a successful line of civil airliners in Russia.

Effective replacement of all our planes with different ones would require immense resources and oversight. In a country corrupt to the core, trying to build something by intimidation will get you nowhere. The results would be poor at best. If the situation takes a drastic turn, so to say, overhauling the system of aviation would take a decade or two. However, in the absence of realistic transition options, there is no saying when anything might change.

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