Due to the sanctions imposed after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russian airlines are no longer supplied with aircraft and spare parts, and the machines are no longer maintained by European and American manufacturers and service providers.

In early April 2023, the Russian business and financial portal RBC reported that an Airbus A330 aircraft will be sent to Iran for the first time to repair the landing gear. This decision did not come as a surprise, as in Iran the Russian airline does not have to wait for the aircraft to be detained during maintenance.

This is due to the fact that Aeroflot’s A330 aircraft are “dual-registered”. Russian airlines have now re-registered hundreds of passenger aircraft. The planes come from Western aircraft leasing companies that were forced to terminate their leases with Russian airlines because of the sanctions. Therefore, these are aircraft that are still officially registered abroad, but have been transferred to the Russian registry without the consent of the owners. The EU states and the U.S. they are obliged not only to refuse to repair and refuel such aircraft, but also to detain them.

What can Iran gain from this?

Tehran has a long track record of circumventing sanctions. In addition, Iran also has Airbus aircraft and spare parts that Aeroflot needs. However, experts have been puzzled for years about their origin. “There are no legitimate suppliers through which Iran could obtain original parts,” Airbus spokesman Justin Dubon tells DW. Observers do not rule out the possibility that Iran is getting parts through “parallel imports” or from the black market, which could be produced in China or India.

Iran may produce some components itself, but it doesn’t have much to offer Russia, as Iran’s aircraft fleet is not in the best shape. Besides, by the end of 2021, the Union of Iranian Airlines itself had stated that about half of the aircraft in the country were grounded due to a lack of essential spare parts.

It is still too early to say whether Russian aircraft will now be regularly maintained in Iran. An Aeroflot source told RBC that they will have to wait until the A330 aircraft returns. After the repair, it will be decided whether more aircraft can be sent to Iran.

What about flight safety?

“If an aircraft is airworthy, does it matter where it was repaired? I doubt there is anything special about repairs in Iran. I think the technical staff is quite professional,” a former Russian airline pilot, who prefers to remain anonymous, told DW. He left Russia shortly after the invasion of Ukraine, and now works abroad.

However, Western sanctions have significantly affected Russian aviation. As the pilot explains, due to the technical risks, many of his colleagues refused to fly during the pandemic and therefore lost their jobs. Therefore, the remaining pilots will continue to fly so as not to jeopardize their positions. However, a source in the management of a Russian airline admitted to DW that “only in the first year after the sanctions were imposed it was safe to fly to Russia.”

Aircraft manufacturer Airbus does not want to assess the risks of servicing Aeroflot aircraft in Iran. A company spokesman said only that each genuine part receives a serial number so the company can track it. However, it is not possible to check spare parts of non-genuine origin, nor services performed in non-certified centers.

What alternatives does Russia have?

As for spare parts, Russia can dismantle existing aircraft or use non-certified spare parts from Turkey or China. “Of course, then there will be more failed repairs and not a single pilot will agree to fly. One cannot drive a car without wheels, just as one cannot fly without certain systems. And if you break all the rules, you don’t know what the consequences will be,” said the Russian ex-pilot.

According to him, a serious problem is the lack of software updates for the aircraft. This could soon become critical for Russian airlines. “If the navigation database is two or three months behind, it’s not that important. Later, however, routes may change and no country will allow planes without updated software to fly in their airspace, not even China.”

As for Aeroflot’s A330 aircraft, it already describes it as “dead”. Russia is not interested in certification or place of repair. Such aircraft could no longer be resold anyway. “They will only be used in the domestic market until their useful life is over or maybe sent back to Iran,” says the pilot.

“Russian” aircraft are also affected

Western sanctions also affect aircraft officially manufactured in Russia. For example, over 75% of the components of the Russian Superjet-100 were purchased from foreign companies. In March 2023, several Russian airlines reported a shortage of spare parts from the US. for the specific type of aircraft, without which it is not possible to continue their operation.

Another Russian aircraft type, the MC-21 aircraft, whose entry into service has been postponed until 2025, also faces the same problem: the lack of components that are not made in Russia but abroad.

“In my opinion, Russia has no future under the current conditions. The Russian aviation industry also has no future. Soon we will go back to the 90s, when there were many accidents,” says the former pilot.