Siberian airlines seek to keep flying 50-year-old jets amid Russian plane shortage

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Two Siberian airlines have asked the Russian government to extend the service life of Soviet-era Antonov aircraft, many of which are over 50 years old, as Russian planemakers scramble to plug the gap left by the exodus of foreign manufacturers.

The small, propeller-driven An-24 and An-26 planes carry up to 50 passengers and are well-suited to the harsh conditions in Siberia and Russia’s far north. But the cost of maintaining them will only increase after Western sanctions against Russia over the conflict in Ukraine have hit investment and access to parts, airline executives, pilots and industry experts say.

The sanctions, which have banned supplies of new aircraft and parts for planes made by the likes of Boeing (BA.N) and Airbus (AIR.PA), caught Russia’s aviation industry by surprise.

Antonovs make up a fraction of Russia’s fleet of over 1,000 passenger planes, but the call to extend their service life from the typical 60 years highlights the problems domestic planemakers are having to keep pace with demand.

“It’s a very reliable aircraft, all the systems work properly, there are no issues at all,” Polar Airlines pilot Konstantin Nazmutdinov told Reuters. “It is very well suited to the conditions of the far north, it can withstand temperatures up to minus 55 (degrees Celsius) (-67°F). There have even been cases when we flew in up to minus 60.”

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The Antonovs were designed in the 1950s and produced in Kyiv from the 1960s, but none has been made for almost a decade. In Yakutia, Russia’s largest region almost the size of India and the heart of Russia’s diamond industry, the planes are crucial.

Almost 100 remain in service, with an average age of about 50 years, Sergei Zorin, deputy CEO of Siberian airline Angara, said. Some are due to be phased out as soon as this year.

“By 2030, a quarter of these planes will be written off,” Zorin said, without more investment in maintenance and repairs.

“It is expensive, it is impossible to afford without state support,” Zorin said. “We are today working in a market in which there are no alternatives to the An-24 and An-26.”

An official from Russia’s trade and industry ministry told a meeting in parliament in November it was studying proposals from Zorin, backed by Polar Airlines, for Antonovs to be used until new, similar, Russian-made aircraft could be put into operation.

Russia has handed out more than $12 billion in state subsidies and loans to keep its aviation sector afloat since the Western sanctions were introduced, a Reuters analysis shows.