The abundance of old, fuel-guzzling, Soviet-era airliners operating in Russia has dealt a severe blow to the region's airlines following the recent surge in fuel prices. With virtually no fuel surcharges permitted by Russia's regulators, airlines are struggling to be profitable even with load factors of 70%, forcing many to reduce their winter flight schedules substantially and look to the West for more efficient aircraft.

Fuel prices in Russia for domestic carriers currently range from $410 per tonne, in Irkutsk, up to $530. In some other CIS countries they are even higher, with over $700 reported in Kyrgyzstan.

Soviet-era types typically burn two to three times more fuel than an equivalent-sized Airbus A320 or Boeing 737. Fuel costs for a Tupolev Tu-154B on a typical 3h sector are about $85 a seat at a load factor of 70%, with summer season fares mostly just below $100.

The number of higher-fuel-consumption types in use has fallen, while the 170-strong Tu-154M fleet - the least inefficient of the old Russian types - is nearing an annual unit utilisation rate of 2,000h - almost the maximum achievable.

With Western types typically offering fuel savings of $300,000 per aircraft per month (at 200h utilisation), Russian airlines are being forced to consider importing them despite the 41.6% tax that is applied to all but Aeroflot and Transaero aircraft.

Pulkovo Airlines says it is now viable to import replacements despite the high taxes. The St Petersburg-based airline has become the sixth Russian carrier to arrange to acquire Western aircraft this year after its deal with International Lease Finance to lease two ex-Aer Lingus Boeing 737-500s in 2005.



Source: Flight International