Science

In Russia, Western planes are falling

in great shape , An Aeroflot Boeing 777-300ER aircraft prepares to land at Pulkovo Airport in Saint Petersburg in the Russian Federation in June 2022.

An Airbus A320-232 with tail number YU-APH made its maiden flight on 13 December 2005. Since then, the aircraft has flown millions of miles for Air Deccan, Kingfisher Airlines, Bingo Airways and Sifax Airlines. In 2014, it was acquired by Air Serbia, the national flag carrier of the Eastern European country.

For eight years, YU-APH flew without any problems—until it landed at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport on May 25, 2022, at 10:37 p.m. It had taken off from Belgrade and was scheduled to take off again on its return late at night within hours. But there was a problem: The pilot had reported a problem with the plane’s engine casing that needed to be fixed. Charlotte, North Carolina-based Collins Aerospace, the supplier of the broken parts, reportedly refused to fix the problem, citing sanctions against Russia as a result of the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. The plane was stuck. (Collins Aerospace did not respond to a request for comment.)

It took six days to fix the problem and for the A320 to depart from Moscow to Belgrade. Air Serbia also did not respond to a request for comment on how the engine casing was replaced or fixed and who manufactured the parts. UU-APH managed to correct its mistake, but there are growing international concerns that aircraft flying in and around Russia could pose a safety risk as sanctions prevent them from being properly maintained. Patrick Q, executive director of the EU’s Aviation Safety Agency, said at a recent conference that he thought the situation was “very unsafe”. “In six months – who knows? In a year – who knows?” They said.

As of the end of May, there were 876 aircraft in the Russian commercial jet fleet, according to data provided by air industry consultancy Ascend by Cerium—down from 968 at the end of February. Most of these were made by Airbus or Boeing aircraft, both of which stopped supplying spare parts to Russian airlines to comply with clearance regulations. “They are not allowed to take any kind of share from Boeing or Airbus,” says Bijan Wasigh, professor of economics at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. “The transfer of any part or technical expertise to Russia is prohibited.” The problem is that aircraft require constant maintenance, repair and replacement.

Planes are not ordinary things, with a cornucopia of parts coming together to keep passengers in the air. And because of the high-stakes nature of flight, some parts need to be replaced very regularly. Anyone who has ever seen an aircraft take off from the ground or on an observation deck will know that intercepting a heavy metal tube is a challenge. Tires are among the hardest parts of an aircraft, rubber burns when braking, smoke often comes from the wheels—and lots of slick, black marks are left on the tarmac. Tires are changed every 120 to 400 landings on the plane. Internal flights operating on shorter domestic routes can make up to four trips a day, meaning the wheels will need to be replaced every one to three months. Boeing stopped supplies to the Russian market on March 1. Airbus followed a day later. “They’re going to wear down,” says Max Kingsley Jones, Ascend by Cerium’s senior advisor on wheels. “They can’t source replacement tires: it’s a potential risk.”

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