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Russia’s largest cargo airline ends contract with NATO

The Russian cargo airline Volga-Dnepr will no longer provide NATO with AN-124 cargo planes, bringing an end to the near-decade-long Ruslan collaboration.

Published: April 18, 2018, 9:56 am

    Moscow

    Citing French media, Kommersant reported that the cessation of operations will take effect on 1 January 2019, a move in response to western sanctions on Russian companies.

    This provision used to be part of the project SALIS (Strategic Airlift International Solution), a joint venture of Ukrainian Antonov Airlines and Russian Volga-Dnepr, established in 2006. Negotiations conducted by the SALIS steering board last week failed to avert the withdrawal.

    The decision by Volga-Dnepr will be a tangible blow to the French army, since it remains dependent on Ruslan aircraft for transportation of helicopters and tanks, despite the presence of the Airbus A400M.

    A spokesperson for NATO denied any link: “SALIS is not a NATO contract but an initiative of a multinational consortium of 10 countries.”

    However, Germany’s defence ministry confirmed the Volga-Dnepr decision to a Leipzig newspaper.

    An-124-100 Ruslan is the world’s largest cargo plane. Ruslan was developed in the 1980s in the Antonov Design Bureau, based in Ukraine, together with leading allied research institutes, enterprises, aviation industry organisations and ministries in the former USSR.

    But the AN-124 is not certified as an EASA aircraft, so would not be automatically eligible for a Certificate of Airworthiness in the UK or any other EASA state. No Antonov aircraft are currently listed on the UK Registry.

    Ending the Salis contract puts pressure on NATO and the EU, which need access to the world’s largest commercial cargo aircraft. At present, 17 Western European countries and Canada participate in the SALIS project.

    If allowed by Germany’s civil aviation authority, the AN-124s could soon be registered there, where Volga-Dnepr already bases some of its AN-124s, while Volga-Dnepr’s subsidiary AirBridgeCargo operates scheduled flights from the Leipzig airport. Volga-Dnepr also has a maintenance facility at Leipzig.

    By registering an AN-124 to a German company, the Volga-Dnepr group would no longer have to face political skirmishes, including problems with Antonov maintenance. As an EU company, it is likely to receive military shipments over Ukraine’s Antonov.

    After AirBridgeCargo (ABC) lost about half its 21 landing slots at Amsterdam’s Schiphol last year, Russia reportedly threatened to ban Dutch carriers from its airspace. Faced with the prospect, KLM quickly struck a deal with ABC over additional slots.

    The US has meanwhile called for a meeting with the Russian authorities on the issue of permits for flights of American aircraft over Russian territory, said US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert.

    “We had plans to meet this week in Washington with the official representatives of the Russian aviation authorities. This meeting was canceled by the Russian government. We do not have a new date yet. We are waiting for them to work with us about the date (of the new meeting), because we do not want termination (of permits) for US air travelers, ” Nauert said.

    According to her, discussions with Russian authorities are being conducted by American airlines, while US diplomats are assisting in these negotiations.

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