Paul Duffy/MOSCOW

Russia's sickly airline sector is at last showing signs of recovery, with modest growth in both the passenger and cargo markets suggesting the industry may be pulling out of the steep decline which set in following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Russia's State Service of Civil Aviation (GSGA) reports improvements in key indicators for the first time since 1990 - although the sector has a long way to go before it regains Soviet-era levels.

Passenger numbers rose to 21.76 million last year, up 1.4% on 1999, while traffic inched up 0.1% to 53.48 billion revenue passenger kilometres (RPKs). The figures are particularly remarkable in that the first nine months of last year saw a contraction in the market.

International passenger traffic grew 17.5% last year, accounting for a third of the total, while domestic traffic - which had increased its share for the first time in a decade in 1999 - fell by 6.7%. The GSGA report says passenger load factors rose 1.5 points to 63.9%, with international services at 65.9% and domestic 62.1%.

The cargo sector also enjoyed growth, with volumes up 7.3% to 530,000t and traffic up 8.4% to 2.45 billion tonne kilometres. The international market accounted for 69.9% of the total (up 5%), although the domestic cargo market grew faster (up 18.6%).

In line with efforts to restructure the industry - the GSGA is imposing tougher standards - the number of carriers holding air operator certificates fell last year to 294 from 323, and should fall further this year. Fifteen new AOCs were issued and 49 were cancelled.

Of the 294, 200 are listed as corporate bodies, with or without limited liability, and the rest are state or municipally owned. Twelve are categorised as general aviation operators, offering flight training, and six as state organisations (air force transport or emergency rescue units).

Just 22 have over 10 large commercial aircraft, 77 have 10 or more aircraft and helicopters of any category, and 84 have six to 10 aircraft. The rest have under five.

Russia's top four airlines carried 50% of all traffic (in terms of RPKs): the top 12 earned 70%, and the top 28 some 90%. Sales rose by 52.8% to R83.7 billion ($2.94 billion). With costs of R81.4 billion, the sector generated a simple surplus of R2.4 billion, compared with R0.54 billion in 1999.

The GSGA report says Russia's airlines had a combined fleet totalling 6,540 aircraft and helicopters last year, including 1,918 older Russian jet and turboprop airliners and freighters, which generated 79.6% of revenues. The 27 'current generation' Russian aircraft produced 4.9% of sales, and the 46 foreign aircraft some 15.5%.

Up to 1995, most aircraft in Russia's fleets were at least part-funded by the state. Since then just 23 aircraft and 21 helicopters have been delivered from Russian factories. Rouble prices have increased six-fold during the same period, making it almost impossible for airlines to raise the cash necessary to renew their fleets.

The report also highlights the significant future costs facing Russian airlines wishing to operate into Europe and elsewhere. Many in-service aircraft will need up to $1 million to meet tougher operating standards requiring the installation of traffic collision avoidance systems, reduced vertical separation minima and area navigation equipment. The GSGA adds that some aircraft - the Ilyushin Il-86, Tupolev Tu-134 and -154, and Antonov An- 24 and -12 - may be pushed out of the market because of the cost of modification to meet new noise standards.

The report says 40-60% of most aircraft types require maintenance, repairs or spare parts. During the last year, 390 aircraft and 911 engines underwent overhaul .

Russia had 533 airports last year, down from 579 in 1999, with several smaller airfields closing. Finally, employment in the sector fell 1.7% to 227,100.

Source: Flight International