Russian regional operator to try its luck on trunk air routes to China

Russian regional IrAero Irkutsk-based airline plans to use three B777s for flights between Russia and China

Seizing the new opportunities afforded by growing air traffic demand between Russia and China, the small Russian regional airline IrAero is to ambitiously launch long-haul Boeing 777 flights in this developing market.

To achieve it, the Irkutsk-headquartered airline has agreed a five-year lease term for three Boeing 777-200 wide-bodies, the first of which has already been delivered.

The China syndrome is part of a major shift in IrAero’s fleet re-structuring and business strategy.

IrAero was set up in 1999 as a specialist cargo airline serving Russia’s far east and north-east regions. Seven years later it launched regional passenger operations. Until very recently its fleet comprised exclusively of regional aircraft dominated by vintage 50-seat Antonov An-24/26 turboprops. Its first jet aircraft experience came in 2011, when a Bombardier CRJ200 was introduced, followed in 2016 by the 100-seat Sukhoi Superjet 100, its biggest aircraft to date.

Currently, IrAero’s 21-strong passenger fleet consists of 12 regional jets: four 50-seat Bombardier CRJ-200LRs and eight 93/103-seat Superjet 100s, and nine turboprops consisting of seven 48-seat An-24RVs, and two 42-seat An-26B-100 Combis. Four SSJ100s are under sub-lease to major Russian airline Utair. IrAero also operates two An-26 and three An-26B turboprop freighters.

Although the airline remains tight-lipped on details of the B777 China project, it is known that, in late February, IrAero received permission from Russian aviation regulator Rosaviatsiya for a scheduled weekly service on as many as 19 air lines to mainland China: 14 from Moscow and five from St Petersburg.

With the airline intensively developing its regional links with China, there are many low-frequency short-haul operations in its current business plan. Using its fleet of CRJ and SSJ regional jets, IrAero flies from Irkutsk to Harbin and Shenyang, from Khabarovsk to Jiamusi, from Krasnoyarsk and Ulan-Ude to Manchuria and is also considering eight more routes to China from Russia’s far east towns.

IrAero took delivery of its first Rolls-Royce Trent 892-powered Boeing 777-200 (tail number VP-BLI) last week. The 21.6-year-old airliner sporting the airline’s livery was spotted arriving in Moscow.

The B777s are expected to be based at Moscow’s Vnukovo Airport, with their line maintenance taken care of by UTG Maintenance & Engineering.

Just how the airline is to successfully upscale its operations remains to be seen. Notably, VIM Airlines, the previous operator of the three B777s, had the same intention to fly them China, before it went out of business last year.

In 2017, during which IrAero saw its traffic increase by 60 per cent to 373,900 passengers, placing it at 25th among Russian airlines, it reported a three percentage points seat load factor improvement to 65.4 per cent. This year it has opted not to disclose its operating results.

IrAero is also a launch customer for the MC-21 new-generation Russian narrow-body, with 10 firm orders. The MC-21 is being manufactured in Irkutsk, airline’s hometown.

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