Volga-Dnepr Airlines and Antonov Airlines announced that their An-124-100 freighter joint venture, Ruslan International, is ending on December 31, 2016. The two companies created the joint venture in 2006 to jointly market their combined An-124 fleets, with the aim of improving availability of the unique ramp loading cargo aircraft. The partnership provided benefits for both airlines over the past 10 years and, most importantly, ensured the level of An-124 services for customers in industry sectors across the globe.
However, Russian operator, Volga-Dnepr Group’s business collaboration with Antonov will continue for the technical aspects of airworthiness and flight safety support of its An-124-100 fleet. But this comes with complications.
Commenting on the decision, Tatyana Arslanova, VP Strategic Management and Charter Cargo Operations of Volga-Dnepr Group, said: “Our joint venture with Antonov Airlines has enjoyed 10 fruitful years and during this time we have been able to ensure our global customers have benefited from the unique operating capabilities of the An-124 whenever and wherever they have needed them. With the world’s largest fleet of An-124 freighters, Volga-Dnepr is committed to maintaining this capability for our customers with our own services, supported by our worldwide offices.” Dennis Gliznoutsa, Vice President, Development & Special Projects at Volga-Dnepr, added: “We wish to publicly thank Antonov Airlines for their partnership over the past decade and we will continue to collaborate in regards to the technical aspects of our An-124 fleet.”
The Ruslan name is what the An-124 was called in the Soviet era. In the west (NATO) it was called Condor. The An-124 first flew in 1982 and production stopped in 2014 with tensions between Russia and Ukraine causing problems. It is a remarkable aircraft with some impressive capabilities: in 1987 an An-124 set a world record by flying nearly 11,000nm without refueling.
Antonov had big plans for the An-124, with numerous variants considered. The An-124’s future is complicated by the political impasse between Russia and Ukraine. Demand for the unique design has now pitted two An-124 operators against each other where they formerly collaborated. Volga-Dnepr has 12 An-124s and Antonov has seven. The other An-124s are sought after – two Libyan owned aircraft are of interest if they can be secured. Both operators do good business with US-based engine makers as they move deliveries to Airbus and Boeing. We get to see An-124s in the US every week.
Antonov Airlines is working on an update to the aircraft called the An-124-100M-150 which increases cargo capacity and range. Volga-Dnepr has one of its An-124s at Marshall in the UK for modifications. The challenge here for both operators is the way the An-124 was developed in the Soviet era. Ukraine-based Antonov made the fuselage and assembled the aircraft. The engines also came from the Ukraine. But pretty much all the rest came from Russian sources. Which is why Antonov considered numerous variants with western avionics and even Rolls-Royce or GE engines. This is also likely the reason Russia’s UAC has decided not to develop any variants.
Meanwhile, Antonov in Ukraine is not considering western engines anymore. Ukraine’s Zaporozhye IVCHENKO-PROGRESS Engine Design Bureau is working to improve reliability, gas stability and service life of the current An-124 engines. Further improvements are planned; the D-18? series 4, -3M with FADEC digital control system and the D-18? series 5.
It would appear that even as the two An-124 operators try to collaborate, they will need an intermediary as long as politics limit options. While both will do what they can to keep the An-124s in service and efficient, it does not behoove either of them to let politics limit their options. Collaboration is a must. There are simply too few An-124s to make that remotely logical. The most likely intermediary seems to be Marshall Aerospace.