General Aviation in Russia Takes Flight
Alaska and Northeastern Russia are divided twins. They share similar geography and climates, a common history, indigenous culture, and tundra and taiga.
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Each is sparsely populated with few roads. In each, fisheries and mineral resource extraction are primary industries, and the military maintains a major presence. Even tourism, one of Alaska’s leading industries, is of growing importance in Eastern Russia, particularly Kamchatka.
One key sector, however, has taken a distinctly different trajectory in Russia than in Alaska: small aircraft aviation. According to a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) fact sheet from 2016, in Alaska there are 400 public use airports, of which 114 are sea plane bases; there are 9,346 registered aircraft and 7,933 active pilots. Anchorage’s Lake Hood accommodates an average of 197 flights daily and nearly 600 in the summer.
Meanwhile, in Russia’s Far Eastern Federal District, made up of Russia’s nine easternmost administrative districts and nearly four times the size of Alaska, there are only 140 fully operational airports, down from a peak of 470 in 1990, just before the collapse of the Soviet Union. According to a 2015 open letter to President Putin signed by 740 pilots, airfield owners, engineers, and other interested parties, the situation for general aviation (aviatsia obschego naznachenia) in Russia is dire. “Today in the Russian Federation, with a population of 140 million, we barely have 2000 to 4000 general aviation aircraft and helicopters… the number of pilot-hobbyists working in “the shadows” is increasing with each year… owners of landing fields are ceasing activities due to high taxes… instead of investing in flight safety, pilots spend as much annually on securing authorizing documentation as their annual maintenance budget, and waste months of time.” The number of aircraft in the Russian Far East specifically engaging in general aviation is insignificant.
Small aviation (malaya aviatsia)—commercial operation of aircraft seating approximately nine to twenty people on scheduled routes—is struggling as well. This once robust sector of the economy started to atrophy in the early 1990s; airports fell into disuse and aircraft into disrepair. Routes withered as the remotest parts of northeastern Russia depopulated. Today, many small, remote towns are poorly served; some communities in Yakutia don’t see an aircraft for six weeks at a time. In recent years, however, the small aviation sector has attracted much more attention from federal authorities, including Vladimir Putin himself, and is getting more funding.
As eastern Russia grows its small and general aviation sectors, it is addressing a broad range of issues in tandem: shortage of operational airports and suitable aircraft, lack of pilot training facilities, bureaucratic/regulatory issues, and of course, financing.
Regulations may be excessive, contradictory, or nonexistent. There is virtually no regulatory framework crafted specifically for small aircraft operation, including their private ownership and commercial use. Until new regulations are in place, small aircraft operators by default must comply with the regulations designed for large aircraft and airlines. The Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) proposed to Russia’s Ministry of Transport that the small aviation sector be liberalized, citing that “excessive regulation does not facilitate the development of civil aviation and hinders the appearance of new entities in the aviation business.” Said another way, regulations must be designed with small aircraft in mind to address not only safety concerns but to promote the development of the small and general aviation sectors.
Regional governments, with the financial support of the federal government, are rapidly taking steps to modernize scores of Soviet-era airports and even construct new ones. In the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), twenty-nine airports and two landing strips are currently slated for modernization. On the Kamchatka peninsula, a network of airports, including seaplane facilities, is being planned in support of the region’s growing tourism industry.
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There is also a dire shortage of flight schools. According to the 2015 open letter to President Putin, in the entire country, there are only four general aviation flights schools (in the prior few years, many schools had had licenses revoked out of safety concerns). The few available programs are costly and lengthy (two to three years), prompting some pilots to seek training and ultimately licenses in the Czech Republic and Belarus, which they then have validated in Russia. Authorities are resistant to approving “simplified” training, which is how they see Alaska’s programs, for small and general aviation.
The aircraft fleet currently operating is rapidly aging and in urgent need of renewal, Russian manufacturers are not yet producing the aircraft needed to fill the need, and foreign aircraft are perceived to be costly and “nye nashi” (not ours). In reference to the small aircraft needed for scheduled passenger operations, the Ministry for Development of the Far East reports that airlines will need 122 aircraft by 2025, 74 of them airplanes and 48 helicopters, requiring funding of $488 million (30 billion rubles). This is a modest estimate. The regional government of Sakha (Yakutia) announced in April that it expects delivery of 200 TVS-2DTS, a next generation Russian biplane to be produced by the Ulan Ude Aircraft Factory, by 2025, and Ivan Lukin of the Yakutia Small Aviation Association believes his region needs at least ten entirely new airlines. He cites Alaska as having 400 airlines, the vast majority of them small and privately owned.
There are ongoing debates in the press about what aircraft type is most economical and best suited to eastern Russia’s extreme conditions and distances. Common aircraft types being discussed and critiqued include the Soviet/Ukrainian AN-2, the Russian TVS-2DTS, the Czech Let L-410 Turbolet, the Canadian DHC-6-400 Twin Otter, the Swiss Pilatus PC-6, and the American Cessna Grand Caravan 208B and Cessna Quest Kodiak.
Sakhalin-based Aurora Airlines, a subsidiary of government-controlled Aeroflot, is in the process of leasing and deploying as many as thirty-two Twin Otters and is working to market this operational model to other regions. Kamchatka’s Vityaz Aero, the dominant operator of helicopters on the Kamchatka peninsula, is now expanding its operation to include small aircraft and plans to build an 800-1600 meter landing strip to accommodate twenty-passenger aircraft.
In the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), a region five times the size of France with 1/70th its population, Lukin argues in favor of the Cessna Caravan given its success in Alaska and its low operational and maintenance costs. Meanwhile, the regional government has expressed strong commitment to utilizing domestic models such as the new TVS-2DTS, designed to replace the AN-2. The AN-2 is a Soviet-era biplane model introduced more than seventy years ago and which is still in use to this day; production has ceased, and the aircraft are now being phased out. Many of the airports in Eastern Russia now being restored have short, 400-meter runways, built with the AN-2 in mind. As Russia upgrades and restores airports, aircraft that can take off from shorter runways will have a marketing advantage.
Conducting business with Russia is challenging in the best of times. Current sanctions do not target general aviation specifically, but Russian companies may be discouraged from working with American entities, and harsh rhetoric only fuels the uncertainty. Nevertheless, Alaska occupies a unique position vis-à-vis Russia. Alaska has a mature and robust general aviation sector that is admired by Russians and seen as a model, even a template, for eastern Russia. Regulators and industry professionals look to Alaska to see how airspace is organized, to study what aircraft types would be best suited for operations in the Russia Arctic, to learn how regulators collect taxes and create rules that balance safety and economic growth, and to try to figure out how small airlines in Alaska make money. Many of the rapid changes now taking place in Russia’s general aviation sector are not just inspired by Alaska, but are the result of proactive engagement by the FAA and representatives of Alaska’s aviation industry with their Russian counterparts.
In July of 2011, a delegation from Russia’s Federal Air Transport Agency (FATA), led by its director Alexander Neradko, visited Alaska to study general aviation first hand. The FAA’s Anchorage Flight Standards Office, in partnership with the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), the Alaskan Airmen’s Association, and other groups, organized the program and hosted the dignitaries. Over a five-day period, the delegation toured airports, flight service facilities, and the University of Alaska Anchorage Aviation Technology Division, and met with the FAA, air traffic control, and industry representatives. Volunteer pilots from the Alaskan Airmen’s Association took the group on a tour of four general aviation airports, utilizing a different aircraft type for each leg to demonstrate the many ways general aviation is used in Alaska.
The FAA collaborates with its counterpart Russian agencies on an ongoing basis, regardless of which way the political winds are blowing. Now the state of Alaska and its aviation industry have the opportunity to build on the groundwork that has been laid and be active players as Russia’s general and small aviation sectors modernize, but to do so they must engage and develop new relationships. If tensions between Russia and the US dial back just a few notches, opportunities may arise in the development of Russian airports, pilot training, aircraft brokerage, and expanded air service. Trade is a positive-sum game; not only does each party benefit from the transaction and develop a vested interest in maintaining the relationship, but the commercial ties that result enhance the communication channels between our countries.
Mark Dudley is the Regional Director for North America at Interpacific Aviation and Marketing, Inc. He’ll be moderating a session on general aviation at the upcoming Russian-American Pacific Partnership (RAPP) meeting to be held in Anchorage July 25-26, 2018.
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