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How Russia keeps its fleet of Western jets in the air

FILE PHOTO: A Ural Airlines Airbus A321 airplane takes off from the airport in Palma de Mallorca

By David Gauthier-Villars and Gleb Stolyarov

DUBAI (Reuters) - A Ural Airlines Airbus landed in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg on Nov. 14 last year. Then it remained grounded on the tarmac.

Three days later, a spare part crucial for navigation systems with a declared value of over a quarter of a million dollars, made by U.S. company Northrop Grumman, arrived for the jet, Russian customs records show.

A week later, on Nov. 24, the A320 took off for Moscow and has been busy ferrying passengers across Russia and Central Asia ever since, according to flight tracking data.

Despite Western sanctions designed to stop Russian carriers from procuring parts for their Airbus and Boeing jets, Ural Airlines has imported over 20 of the U.S.-made devices since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the customs data show.

All told, at least $1.2 billion worth of aircraft parts flowed to Russian airlines from May last year - when most U.S. and European trade curbs and export bans over Ukraine were in force - to the end of June this year, a Reuters analysis of the customs records shows.

The equipment ranged from essential items needed to keep a jet airworthy - such as the Northrop Grumman devices, cabin pressure valves, cockpit displays and landing gear - to more mundane spares, such as coffee makers, flight attendant telephone handsets and toilet seats.

The customs records showed the parts made their way to Russia through middlemen in countries including Tajikistan, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Turkey, China and Kyrgyzstan – none of which has endorsed Western sanctions on Russia.

The $1.2 billion tally underestimates the total value of aircraft parts imported during the period reviewed by Reuters as it only includes shipments destined directly for Russian airlines or their maintenance units - and not plane parts shipped to other companies in Russia.

Oleg Panteleev, head of the AviaPort aviation think-tank in Moscow, said Russian airlines have "solved the problem" of operating under Western sanctions.

"At first there was a shock, no one knew what to do," he told Reuters. "After two to three months, new supply channels were found and, after six or nine months, quite a lot of alternatives appeared, which allowed for a reduction in prices and delivery times."

'UNNECESSARY INFORMATION'

Ural Airlines Deputy Chief Executive Kirill Skuratov declined to comment on how the Russian carrier procured its spare parts. "I definitely will not tell you that," he told Reuters. "It is unnecessary information."

After reviewing the list compiled by Reuters, Northrop Grumman said it did not identify any sales or repair services by the company to Russian entities. Northrop Grumman said it has "robust processes and procedures to help ensure compliance with all applicable export and sanctions-related laws and regulations."

The U.S. government said its export controls and those of its allies had severely affected the Russian aviation sector.

"We will continue to vigorously enforce our controls by rooting out and disrupting illicit networks, pursuing individuals evading restrictions, and directly engaging with industry and foreign governments to ensure compliance," a Department of Commerce spokesperson said.

A European Union official said the bloc was closely coordinating with countries that had imposed similar trade curbs to ensure they were not circumvented.

"Systems are being put in place in some countries for monitoring, controlling and blocking re-exports," the official said.

To be sure, Western sanctions have made life more difficult for Russia's aviation sector.

In mid 2022, aviation industry sources described how some Russian airlines were stripping some planes for parts. And Russian carrier S7 Airlines said in June last year that it had to scrap plans to launch a low-cost operator because it could not take delivery of the Airbus planes it had ordered.

Like its U.S. rival Boeing, the European planemaker cut links with its Russian clients when sanctions kicked in.

But as of May 1 this year, Russian carriers had 541 Western planes in active service or under maintenance, according to data compiled by Swiss aviation intelligence provider ch-aviation. That's more or less on a par with before the war, taking into account the 75 planes being leased by Russian airlines that were repossessed by their foreign owners, the ch-aviation data show.

Russian airlines carried 10.1 million passengers in June, according to Russia's federal statistics agency Rosstat, compared to 8.87 million in June 2022 and 11.1 million in June 2021.

Without Western aircraft, Russian airlines would have had to downsize massively because they only have about 150 Russian-made passenger planes in their fleets, according to ch-aviation data.

Russia's trade ministry and civil aviation authority did not respond to messages seeking comment.

CIRCUITOUS ROUTE

Before the trade restrictions, Ural Airlines, Aeroflot, S7 and other Russian carriers relied on maintenance support from global firms such as Lufthansa Technik of Germany.

When those firms stopped providing services – Lufthansa Technik said it suspended sales to Russia from Feb. 28, 2022 – Russian airlines turned to a pool of far smaller suppliers.

In April 2022, for example, S7's maintenance unit, S7 Engineering, began importing parts from a company in Moldova called Air Rock Solutions, according to the customs records.

The first shipment was for water filters for Airbus galleys with a declared value of $1,700. Over the next 14 months, S7 received at least $1.23 million of parts from Air Rock, the records show.

Ivan Melnicov, chief executive of Air Rock and another aircraft parts distributor in Moldova called Aerostage Services, denied selling products to Russia. He said most of his clients were in the UAE and Kyrgyzstan, among others.

"Business with Russian companies is impossible to be done from Moldova, simply considering that their banks are banned in Moldova and payments are not processed," Melnicov told Reuters. "We are not interested in losing our local and international partners for short-term income."

Most of the shipments listed in Russian customs records as having been made by Air Rock and Aerostage took circuitous routes, transiting through the UAE or Kyrgyzstan. Asked if that could indicate his clients in those countries had re-routed deliveries to Russian airlines, the Moldovan businessman did not respond.

S7 and Aeroflot did not respond to messages seeking comment.

NOSE TO TAIL SERVICES

The serial number listed in Russian customs records for the Northrop Grumman device sent to Yekaterinburg last year shows the part was manufactured in October 2008, and used on different aircraft, including one in Saudi Arabia six year ago, according to an industry source with access to maintenance databases.

While the customs records don't name the company that shipped the device in November, they do show how more of the same crucial U.S. parts fitted with high-tech laser gyroscopes reached Urals Airlines during the 14-month period reviewed by Reuters.

In July 2022, for example, one was shipped to Ural Airlines via the UAE by Istikloliyat 20, a civil engineering company based in Tajikistan. In September 2022, another Tajik civil engineering firm, Kafolati Komil, also sent one of the parts to Russia via the UAE, the data show.

Mahmadbashir Yakubov, chief executive of Istikloliyat 20, did not respond to phone messages seeking comment. Reuters was unable to reach Komilchon Yakubov, the chief executive of Kafolati Komil.

Some of the shipments of Northrop Grumman parts to Ural Airlines that went through the UAE were handled by a company named Skyparts FZCO, the customs records show.

Created in June 2022 and registered in a single-room office in one of Dubai's free economic zones, Skyparts says on its website it was founded by aviation professionals and offers customers "nose to tail" support for their aircraft.

Asked about the shipments of the Northrop Grumman device, Skyparts manager Saeed Abdulloev told Reuters he was familiar with the part and confirmed that the Dubai firm was doing business with Tajik companies, including Istikloliyat 20.

He said Skyparts had procured one of the Northrop Grumman parts from a U.S. supplier but denied ever sending it to Russia. He declined to identify the U.S. firm.

HUSBAND AND WIFE

One Russian carrier, Nordwind Airlines, appears to have harnessed family ties to procure parts for the 12 Airbus and 15 Boeing aircraft in its fleet, the customs data show.

Owned by Russian entrepreneur Karine Bukrey, according to corporate records, the airline imported hundreds of parts from Ramses Turizm. Based in the Turkish resort town of Antalya, Ramses Turizm is owned by Bukrey's husband, Ramazan Akpinar.

Nordwind and Bukrey did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Contacted by Reuters on April 4 this year, Akpinar confirmed owning Ramses Turizm and being married to Bukrey. He did not answer questions about aircraft part exports to Nordwind.

The Russian records show Nordwind stopped receiving parts from Ramses Turizm three days after Reuters asked about them. However, the airline carried on importing parts from another Turkish company, Na Havacilik ve Teknik, also based in Antalya.

Reuters was unable to reach Nusret Alper, who founded Na Havacilik in August 2022, for comment.

Nordwind also imported parts via its maintenance unit, NW Technic, according to the customs records. Chief Executive Valery Pashaev told Reuters his unit was solely focused on maintaining aircraft and was not involved in parts procurement.

"People bring me parts and tell me where to install them," Pashaev said. "I take the parts and install them."

(Additional reporting by Lisa Barrington in Dubai and Maurice Tamman in New York; Editing by David Clarke and Daniel Flynn)