Seven months after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, aviation has felt the impact in the form of soaring fuel prices and shortages of parts and materials. However, for some Western carriers, the effect of shutting off Russia has been even more direct, while in the country itself the war is hastening a transformation of the airline sector that could consign it back to the communist era.
Finland’s population is just 5.5 million, but its national airline Finnair has exploited its fortunate position on the globe to punch above its weight in the long-haul market, much as Icelandair, the Gulf airlines and Singapore Airlines have done. Flights to northern Asia from its Helsinki hub are shorter and cheaper to operate than many of its European rivals because it routes over the Arctic Circle.
That was until the closure of Russian airspace, which has removed its main selling point. Flights to Asian cities now take up to 40% longer. This has forced Finnair to reduce its fleet, restructure its network, and consider cutting staff just as traffic elsewhere returns to pre-pandemic levels. “We do not have a unique geographical advantage anymore,” bemoans its chief executive Topi Manner.
For Russia’s airlines, sanctions have made the outlook grimmer, although the Kremlin portrays it as an opportunity to kick-start the country’s stagnant domestic aerospace industry. Until earlier this year, Aeroflot was a respected global brand, with a fleet of modern Airbus and Boeing airliners and a cabin product far removed from the grim-faced cabin crew and shabby interiors of Soviet times.
This week the flag-carrier signed an agreement to buy 339 Russian-built aircraft, including the still-to-be-certificated Irkut MC-21, now no longer available with its Pratt & Whitney Geared Turbofan engine option, and the latest version of the Sukhoi Superjet, which over the past decade has failed to impress Western airlines despite persistent marketing efforts.
While it will continue to operate its Western airliners – until lack of spares makes it unsafe to do so – Aeroflot is putting a brave face on the decision, with its chief executive claiming it “demonstrates to the whole world that Russia is a great aviation power with great potential and rich experience in the field of aircraft construction”.
Russia’s vast internal market will continue to provide destinations for Aeroflot and others to serve, but fewer lucrative overseas routes will hit the bottom line. Meanwhile, shipments to domestic customers do not provide aerospace manufacturers with the dollar sales and international credibility they crave. In terms of industrial philosophy – as well as militarily – it feels like the 1980s again.
There was good and bad news this week for technology disruptors. United Airlines became the latest big name to commit to an electric air taxi order from Eve, in which Embraer holds a majority stake. The carrier has invested $15 million and agreed to buy 200 of the in-development vertical take-off and landing aircraft, which promises cheap short-hop flights with zero emissions, for delivery as early as 2026.
However, there was what appeared to be a blow for Boom – which aims to fly the first supersonic airliner since Concorde in the next few years – after it parted company with propulsion partner Rolls-Royce. The UK firm had admitted that the “supersonic market is not a priority for us”. Undaunted, the Denver-based start-up says it will be announcing a new engine partner later in the year.
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