Worn-down tires would just be the first indication of decay. Planes are powered by computer systems that require regular maintenance, with some systems programmed to switch off after a number of flight cycles or calendar days and reset. That includes aircraft engines and auxiliary power units, the electricity generator that pumps compressed air through the cabin in flight and powers the firing of the engine when the plane is first turned on. “Some of those parts are life-limited,” says Kingsley Jones. “They literally have to be taken off the aircraft and replaced when they get to a certain age or a certain number of flights.” Despite the stereotype of running old, dilapidated planes into the ground, Russia’s fleet of aircraft compares favorably with those in much of the rest of the world. The average age of a Russian-run plane is 10.5 years, according to the Association of Tour Operators of Russia. The age of the average passenger plane worldwide is 10.3 years, according to management consultancy Oliver Wyman.
“Don’t misunderstand the Russian capability with aeronautical engineering,” says Kingsley Jones. “They are a very capable nation; they have their own aircraft manufacturing industry and are quite capable of maintaining the aircraft they do.” But as Russian airlines run down their supply of official spare parts, they’re going to be forced to adopt alternative measures. In April and May, Russian authorities widened the pool of companies that can service planes operating in the country beyond international norms. “I don’t think it’s that these aircraft are all flying deathtraps,” says Kingsley Jones. “It’s more that there’s an unknown quantity about the whole thing.” Third-party parts, produced by Russian manufacturers, could well be used to replace broken parts. This is something that happens in the rest of the world but is frowned upon by the aircraft leasing companies that provide most of the planes to carriers. (Russia has said it plans to build a parts manufacturing plant in Kazan by 2023 to fill the supply gap.) “If the situation is not really resolved in the next two or three months, Russian aircraft could be grounded totally or forced to fly with unapproved or unauthorized parts,” says Vasigh.
Sanctions—alongside the global slowdown caused by COVID-19—have cut a huge chunk out of Russia’s international air traffic, according to consultancy Ascend by Cirium. The number of aircraft it tracked on international flights on June 10 was 179, compared to 493 on January 3, 2020. That’s largely because around 70 percent of Aeroflot’s planes are leased by a company that has called in its aircraft, demanding them back from the Russian carrier, according to Vasigh. This means if its planes land in most European countries, they will be confiscated. But while international travel has been grounded, domestic air travel within Russia is continuing at a steady clip. Ascend by Cirium tracked 456 aircraft flying domestically on June 10, 30 more than 2.5 years ago.
The planes are still flying, but the parts aren’t arriving. So what’s happening? “Most probably, Russian operators will have to cannibalize other planes they have,” says Volodymyr Bilotkach, associate professor of air transport management at Singapore Institute of Technology. That causes its own issues. Right now, the concern is about the safety of aircraft flying in the here and now. But it seems unlikely that Russia will be a pariah state forever. Sanctions will eventually be lifted, and aircraft currently flying in Russia—many of which have been illegally sequestered by the Russian state—will want to return to flying routes without a connection to Russia. That will be made trickier by Frankensteining parts from other planes.
“All these parts are quite highly controlled,” says Bilotkach. “The manufacturers know which particular spare part is going to be installed on which aircraft. You need proper records of that.” But required paperwork is unlikely to be maintained. “As soon as an aircraft doesn’t have a proper maintenance record, the value of those aircraft drops to zero,” says Vasigh.
None of the experts WIRED spoke to said they’d rush to step onto a plane operating in Russia at the moment. Bilotkach—a Ukrainian national—equated it to taking international-facing Russian airlines that had significantly improved their safety records in the post-Soviet Union back 30 or more years. “Just look it up on Wikipedia,” he says. “They have a separate page for air crashes in the Soviet Union.”
This story originally appeared on wired.com.