The privately owned Russian airline IrAero has shut down its experimental Boeing 777 programme after industry analysts had doubts from the start that the regional carrier had the necessary capabilities to tackle the challenging wide-body project, pointing specifically at a lack of a clear strategy. Now that the last of the airline’s leased Boeing 777-200ERs has left its fleet and the 18-month project is over, those predictions have proven true.
THE IDEA AND WHY IT FAILED
The IrAero Boeing 777 project started in June 2018 when the airline leased the first of the aircraft type, followed by two more. The last of the three units – with registrations VP-BMR, VP-BSJ and VP-BL and all built between 1997 and 1998 – returned to Spain in early January.
Just like the previous Russian operator of these aircraft, the now defunct VIM Airlines, IrAero was counting on capitalising on operating the wide-bodies on flights to and from China. But whilst this made sense on paper, in reality the project ran into hurdles right from the start. Firstly, with the Chinese programme finally kicking off in October 2018, the entire high summer season was spent attempting to find work for the expensive aircraft, including flights to the Far Eastern region of Russia already served by Aeroflot offering state-supported ‘flat rates.’ Then, in early 2019, IrAero was forced to suspend its B777 operations after its large Chinese travel agent partner backed out of the programme. That is when the wide-body project’s shortfalls became increasingly apparent. Although the airline’s management announced it was still hopeful of resuming B777 operations some day in the future, the idea seemed more dubious than ever.
Despite encountering such obvious difficulties, IrAero’s management is still defending its stance. “Last year, IrAero’s 20th anniversary year, was probably one of the most successful in its history,” first deputy director Vladimir Panfilov insists. “The airline’s RPK numbers more than doubled as the result of a significant route network expansion.”
In January through November 2019, IrAero transported some 847,000 passengers, a very solid 35 per cent year-on-year improvement, and it also achieved a 77.9 per cent seat load factor.
Now, having divested itself of the 1,100 seats that its B777s provided, IrAero is back to its regional self, with its nine 100-seat Superjet 100 regional jets, its largest aircraft and the core of its fleet. However its woes are not yet over as only five of these are in airworthy condition and the airline is facing ongoing lawsuits from the owner of the aircraft and even from the type’s manufacturer Sukhoi Civil Aircraft Co (SCAC).
The airline’s smaller segment, featuring the 50-seat Bombardier CRJ200, is not much better off, as only one of four aircraft is actually operating. There are also the company’s “good old” Antonov An-24/26 turboprops, but the overall problem remains: there’s simply no sound strategy the airline can follow, admits one of its managers in a private conversation with Russian Aviation Insider. The Boeing 777 trial was too expensive, both for the airline and for the market, he explains. “The [long term] idea to work on long-haul routes still remains. But with a more suitable aircraft type.”
BACK TO THE SUPERJET
On December 30, Sukhoi Civil filed yet another lawsuit against IrAero, claiming 941.4 million roubles (US$15.350 million) for as yet undisclosed reasons. It is the third case following a similar suit in February 2019 (for 550 million roubles) and also in July in the same year (for 660 million roubles).
IrAero, in turn, has retaliated with a claim to reimburse its collective losses of 1.9 billion roubles ($31 million) associated with the operation of SSJ100s since their entry into service with the airline in 2016.
“IrAero has nine SSJ100s in its fleet, but only five of them are serviceable,” a source has revealed to Interfax newswire. “The remaining aircraft are not in flying condition. Moreover, one of the aircraft has been grounded for three years and now serves as a spare parts donor for its siblings,” the source adds, further explaining that the claim also includes maintenance costs and losses associated with cancelled flights and anticipated damages.
IrAero has not provided an official statement regarding its claims against SCAC, but has confirmed that only five aircraft remain flying.
IrAero leased its nine SSJ100s from Russia’s State Transport Leasing Corporation (GTLK). Of these, four were factory-fresh deliveries and the remaining five were units previously operated by Red Wings and Yamal Airlines. Throughout 2018 and 2019 GTLK filed several lawsuits against IrAero in pursuit of pending lease payments, all of which ended up in a friendly settlement.
In an interview with Interfax, IrAero’s general director Yury Lapin, insisted that according to SCAC’s figures, the Superjet 100’s operational economy offers an average monthly flight-time of 202 hours, but in the course of its operational experience, IrAero has never been able to come “anywhere close to these numbers.”
By Artyom Korenyako
Russian Aviation Insider
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