Volga-Dnepr Group / Press-center / Media Coverage

New An-124 proves elusive

07/09/2008

RUSSIA and the Ukraine apparently reached the latest of several agreements to re-start Antonov An-124 production in late April, when Russian premier Viktor Zubkov met his Ukranian counterpart Yulia Timoshenko. The two are reported to have agreed on a deadline of the third quarter of 2008 for a resumption of the programme.

It is not in the least bit clear, however, how such an ambitious timetable can be achieved, and many informed observers see huge obstacles remaining.

One, which also surfaced in April, is disagreement about who will own the intellectual property in the new aircraft. In the Soviet era this was not a problem, but now with both Ukraine-based Antonov Design Bureau and Aviastar, the Ulyanovsk, Russia-based manufacturer that will build the aircraft, having to do lots of new work to create new An-124s, it is not at all clear who will then own the rights to them in future.

Even if these issues were resolved, there would continue to be considerable logistics problems before production could be restarted, as Paul Furlonger, sales director for Ruslan International, points out.

"New parts suppliers would have to be found, since many of the original parts suppliers to the aircraft are no longer in business or not able to supply the same parts," he says. "I am not saying it is impossible, just that it will take some time yet."

Furlonger raises another problem too. Though there are apparently 41 orders for the aircraft - including 17 ordered by Volga-Dnepr, five by Polet Air Cargo, and several from unnamed UAE customers (which seem to include Maximus Air Cargo: see separate story) - that is still not quite the 50 supposedly needed to make restarting production profitable.

But if more orders come in, there is a danger that might flood the current commercial market with too much An-124 capacity and undermine the business that the current An-124 operators have built up.

"The question is, would the market be sufficient to sustain the amount of aircraft needed to make the cost anything like sensible be sustainable?" asks Furlonger. Military sales might be able to bridge the gap, but would Russia be happy to see the Antonov bought by foreign militaries, especially given the tensions between Russia and the Ukraine over possible NATO membership.

While these issues await resolution, the current An-124 operators seem to be back¬pedalling over the urgency of getting new aircraft. A year ago Polet Air Cargo was suggesting that its An-124s might only have 10 years life left in them, and implying that some of its rivals' aircraft might need retiring even sooner.

But now, Maxim Klushin, executive director of Polet Air Cargo's Munich office, says that Antonov Design Bureau has recently lengthened its estimates of the An-124s useful life. In addition, Furlonger sees no reason why they should not carry on in service for a couple of decades.

"There are plenty of western-built aircraft that are still flying commercially that are 40 or even 50 years old," he points out. "The An-124s were all built between 1987 and 1998 and so there is still plenty of life in them yet."

Other factors to consider here are the An-124-100M-150 upgrade to the existing aircraft, which was given type certification early in 2007. Not a lot has been heard of this since, but Furlonger is still expecting all the current Antonov Airlines and Volga-Dnepr's to have this upgrade at some point when they go in for heavy maintenance. This would improve payload by 22 per cent and reduce the flight crew needed from six to four. Lastly there are also the 21 ex-military aircraft that were grounded by the Russian air force in December 2005 and are now at a base near Bryansk. Might they be available for upgrading for commercial use? Some parties have said in the past that this might be feasible, and others that it would be impossibly expensive.

It is an open question, however, whether the aircraft are in any condition to be refurbished - after all, Furlonger points out, they have been parked in Russia not Arizona. And the resurgent Russian military may want to revive them itself, or sell them and create a new transport aircraft. Certainly Polet, which has had two ex-military aircraft in reserve for years, seems to have made no progress in upgrading them for commercial service.

Array

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