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In Russia, Western planes are collapsing

An Airbus A320-232 with the tail number YU-APH made its first flight on December 13, 2005. Since then the aircraft has flown millions of miles, flying routes for Air Deccan, Kingfisher Airlines, Bingo Airways and Syphax Airlines before being taken over by Air Serbia, the flag carrier of the Eastern European country, in 2014.

For eight years, YU-APH flew without any problems, until it landed at 22:37 on May 25, 2022 at Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow. He had arrived from Belgrade and was due to leave late at night within the hour. But there was a problem: the pilot had reported a problem with the plane’s engine crankcase that needed to be repaired. The supplier of the broken part, Charlotte, North Carolina-based Collins Aerospace, reportedly refused to fix the problem, citing sanctions against Russia stemming from its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The plane was grounded. (Collins Aerospace did not respond to a request for comment.)

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It took six days for the problem to be resolved and the A320 to leave Moscow for Belgrade. Air Serbia also did not respond to a request for comment on how the crankcase was replaced or repaired, and who made the part. YU-APH managed to remedy its fault, but the international community is increasingly concerned that planes flying to, from and around Russia will become a security risk, as sanctions prevent them from being properly maintained. Patrick Ky, executive director of the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, told a recent conference that he felt the situation was “very dangerous”. “In six months, who knows? In a year, who knows? he said.

At the end of May, there were 876 planes in the Russian commercial aircraft fleet, according to data provided by Ascend by Cirium, an aviation industry consultancy, compared to 968 planes at the end of February. Most of them were made by Airbus or Boeing planes, both of which have stopped supplying spare parts to Russian airlines to comply with sanction rules. “They’re not allowed to get any type of part from Boeing or Airbus,” says Bijan Vasigh, professor of economics at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. “The transfer of any parts or technical expertise to Russia is prohibited.” The problem is that planes need constant maintenance, repairs and replacements.

Airplanes aren’t simple things, with a cornucopia of parts that fit together to keep passengers aloft. And because of the issue of theft, some parts must be changed very regularly. Anyone who has ever seen a plane land from the ground or from an observation deck knows that stopping a heavy metal tube is a challenge. Tires are among the hardest hit parts of an aircraft, burning rubber when the brakes are applied, with puffs of smoke often coming from the wheels and many smooth black streaks left on the tarmac. Tires are changed every 120 to 400 aircraft landings. Domestic flights on short domestic trips could make four trips a day, which means the wheels need to be replaced every one to three months. Boeing stopped supplying the Russian market on March 1, 113 days ago. Airbus followed a day later. “They’re going to wear out,” says Max Kingsley Jones, senior consultant at Ascend by Cirium, of the wheels. “They can’t get replacement tyres: it’s a potential risk.”

Worn tires would only be the first sign of deterioration. Aircraft are powered by computer systems that require regular maintenance, with some systems programmed to shut down after a certain number of flight cycles or calendar days and reset. This includes aircraft engines and auxiliary power units, the electrical generator that pumps compressed air through the cabin in flight and powers the engine trigger when the aircraft is first turned on. “Some of these parts have a limited lifespan,” says Kingsley Jones. “They literally have to be taken off the plane and replaced when they reach a certain age or a certain number of flights.” Despite the stereotype of crashing old dilapidated planes, Russia’s aircraft fleet compares favorably to that of much of the rest of the world. The average age of a Russian plane is 10.5 years, according to the Association of Tour Operators of Russia. The average age of an airliner worldwide is 10.3 years, according to management consultancy Oliver Wyman.

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Post expires at 4:19pm on Sunday July 3rd, 2022