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One cargo airline remarkably unaffected by the slump in worldwide freight markets is Russia's Volga-Dnepr Airlines. The carrier has carved itself a space in the air cargo market with its fleet of Antonov An-124s. Despite the recession, demand for these massive aircraft remained almost unchanged, says Dennis Gliznoutsa, Volga-Dnepr's group commercial director (charters).

"It may sound a bit strange, but we have not seriously noticed a recession in terms of the businesses we provided. That's because we're in a niche market," says Gliznoutsa.

That niche includes handling ultra-heavy, outsize pieces of equipment for the power, construction and oil industries, which need to transport them to the sites of their latest projects.

 

Maximum drop in this sector was 10-15%, he says. Governments and other national agencies also needed the An-124's load-hauling capabilities to get heavy equipment into difficult environments, such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ironically, as the economic landscape brightens, Volga-Dnepr is noticing a drop in business. Since April, long-haul flights on behalf of the US, Canadian and some European governments have fallen, reflecting developments in the Middle East and central Asia.

Western nations are reducing their presence in Iraq and supply routes to Afghanistan have improved, so there is less demand for large, urgent, long-haul consignments. Now, says Gliznoutsa, the trend is towards short-range, "almost local" charters to Iraq and Afghanistan from locations such as Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.

Although other sectors such as project cargoes are reviving, "I don't believe the commercial market will completely compensate for the drop in the government sector," says Gliznoutsa.

Despite this, Volga-Dnepr has major expansion plans. Gliznoutsa confirms that the airline wants to order no fewer than 40 An-124s if the production line reopens. This will be both to renew Volga-Dnepr's ageing fleet and to cater for growth in demand for these aircraft.

There has been talk of enlarging the An-124 by cutting the upper fuselage horizontally and adding an insert to make the cargo compartment taller. Volga-Dnepr has completed technical evaluations and business cases for the modification and presented these to clients.

Gliznoutsa remains cautious: "It's quite an expensive exercise, so unless we have a firm requirement or order from one or more clients we probably won't commit to that."

New production of the An-124 may be kick-started this year by a Russian air force order, but realistically no new aircraft will come off the assembly line for two to three years. Volga-Dnepr is therefore considering buying three to five of the type from the Russian air force and converting them to civilian configuration. This would involve new avionics and navigational equipment, plus revisions to the fuel system.

Volga-Dnepr also has a memorandum of understanding to take four or five Antonov An-70T propfans if the aircraft finally enters serial production to supplement its fleet of Ilyushin Il-76s.

Although its payload and range are smaller, Volga-Dnepr regards it as a "younger brother" to the four-engined jet, says Gliznoutsa. He suggests that European nations waiting for the delayed Airbus A400M may be interested in chartering the type.

Volga-Dnepr has recently taken delivery of its third new-generation Il-76TD-90VD, with two more due by early 2012. It could have 15-20 in its fleet by 2020. The modernised aircraft's PS-90A-76 turbofans allow it to meet European noise regulations and cost per tonne of cargo is half that of a Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules, claims the airline.

Volga-Dnepr invested heavily in the Il-76TD-90VD and has been frustrated by exemptions granted by European Union nations to earlier Il-76s that do not meet modern noise and emission standards. Having talked to several European aviation authorities, it says these bodies now have "a clearer picture" of the shortcomings of the older aircraft.