Moscow is counting on Iran to help it figure out how to deal with the crippling sanctions in its aviation sector. But will Iran be able to help?
Speaking on March 22 at an economic policy committee meeting in the upper house of the Russian parliament, Transport Minister Vitaly Savelyev said that “Russia was being guided by Iran’s experience of servicing aircraft in a similar situation”.
Tehran certainly has a lot of experience, having been the target of US and international sanctions for several decades. However, its track record suggests that its advice may be of limited use to Moscow.
Iran has been barred from receiving replacement parts or new planes from international manufacturers for many years, but the country’s airlines have managed to keep flying, largely using some planes for replacement parts. Of its fleet of around 250 aircraft in 2018, around 100 of them were grounded because they had broken down or been dismantled for parts, or cannibalized.
When Iran had the chance to buy Western jets, it jumped at the opportunity. During a brief respite from international sanctions following the signing of the nuclear deal in 2015, Iranian airlines ordered more than 300 new aircraft from Airbus, Boeing and ATR. However, only a handful of planes were ordered before then-U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions in 2018.
After that, it looked for alternatives to Western aircraft, but found any deal difficult to conclude. Deals were announced in 2018 for two Iranian airlines – Aseman Airlines and Iran Air Tours – to buy 40 Sukhoi SuperJet 100s from Russia at a list price of around $2 billion, but the deal fell through due to sanctions. Iran has even started to think about developing its own passenger plane, but that project seems to have suffered from a lack of funding.
In the absence of new aircraft available, Iran had to turn to the second-hand market to buy much older planes. On March 16, the head of the Civil Aviation Organization of Iran (CAOI), Mohammad Mohammadi-Bakhsh, said that Iranian airlines had purchased ten passenger aircraft with an average age of 15 to 20 years in the past three months. It is unclear where they are coming from.
Sanctions cut through Russia by air
The sanctions imposed on Russia after the February invasion of Ukraine were even more comprehensive than those imposed on Iran. They included bans on Russian aircraft using airspace and airports in the US, Canada, the European Union and the UK. In addition, aircraft manufacturers have stopped supplying new aircraft or providing spare parts or maintenance.
More than 500 of the planes Russia’s airlines use are leased from companies in Ireland or Bermuda, but regulators in those countries have suspended or canceled their airworthiness certificates. In response, President Vladimir Putin signed a law that allows Russian airlines to place these aircraft on a local registry, which can then issue certificates of airworthiness.
International leasing companies were unable to recover their assets. Savelyev said on March 22: “We are looking for legal ways to negotiate with lessors and resolve this issue, but so far we have not been able to do that. But we’re not losing hope and we’re not giving anything back either. Doing so would mean leaving us without [uma] air fleet”.
So far, nearly 800 planes — out of a Russian fleet of about 1,367 aircraft — have been transferred to Russia’s registry, Savelyev said. At least some of the aircraft registered in Russia have not been deregistered elsewhere, in violation of international aviation rules. The Irish Aviation Authority has identified at least 11 Boeing aircraft that are now dual registered, including planes flown by Rossiya and Alrosa.
International flights by Russian airlines have been severely curtailed due to sanctions. On March 8, national carrier Aeroflot suspended all international flights except its service to Belarus’ capital Minsk due to sanctions.
Earlier this month, the country’s second-largest airline, S7, also suspended all international flights. Other operators, including Smartavia and Aeroflot’s low-cost subsidiary Pobeda, have taken similar steps.
However, in recent days, Aeroflot has started to rebuild its international network. On March 14, it resumed flights to Bishkek and Osh in Kyrgyzstan and a week later began flying to Baku, capital of Azerbaijan. From April 2, flights to Tehran must resume.