Volga Dnepr goes XXL

The emissaries of the Russian aviation giant waited until the last minute at their Munichheld press meeting to announce their hottest and most ambitious project - the intention to sign a firm order for purchasing as many as twenty giant AN-124-300 freighters. Heiner Siegmund reports.

Up to now, however, this aircraft exists only on the drawing boards of the engineers at plane maker Aviastar’s construction plant in Ulyanovsk, located roughly 800 km southeast of Moscow. There, the successor of forerunner AN-124-100 is supposed to be assembled if the programme is given the final go-ahead. According to plans the -300F should be able to fly 8,100 km nonstop with as many as 150 tonnes loaded on its deck. Alternatively the craft could cover a distance of up to 10,000 km without technical stop but would have to reduce its payload to 120 tonnes. So in comparison to the ten Volga-owned but rapidly aging AN-124-100 the new variant -300 can uplift thirty more tonnes at each departure and fly twice as far without need to refueling the tanks in between. “Currently we are in advanced negotiations with the Russian state authorities and banks for reaching an agreement to finance the entire project,” said Dmitry Obsharov, Volga Dnepr’s director marketing and strategy. He further pointed out that there are plans to sign an intergovernmental pact between Russia and the Ukraine on project participation, administration, funding and securing the technical know-how gained through the programme. Kiev’s government supposedly favours the plans since its own Antonov Design Bureau that constructed the AN-124 and operates some of these aircraft as well, would be one of the major beneficiaries of this undertaking. Obsharov is positive that all remaining hurdles will quickly be set aside: “We expect delivery of the first AN-124- 300 in 2015 or 2016 latest with the others following continuously until 2020.” The manager added that there is rapidly increasing market demand for charter flights especially for transporting outsized and very heavy items. “We are lacking capacity since we would have no problem to fill up more freighters with ad-hoc shipments if we’d have them in our fleet.” He referred to a Russian feasibility study that confirmed the market viability of the future XXL freighter. In the meantime Volga Dnepr expects the delivery of its fourth Ilyushin IL- 76TD, with number five to follow next year. This might ease the worst capacity constraints. The craft, initially produced 2005, can carry up to 50 tonnes thus complementing Volga’s mainly domestic volumes, but also to and from the EU, since it complies with Brussel’s noise and CO2 emissions regulations. Concerning his group’s future Obsharov is highly confident: “We are looking for leadership in cargo transports both as capacity provider for charter missions and scheduled flights.” A main pillar next to the charter biz for realizing Volga Dnepr’s vision is line-haul carrier AirBridgeCargo (ABC). The group’s 2004-offspring is on its way to becoming a global contender, challenging mainly Chinese, South Korean and European rivals. Proof is the phenomenal tonnage growth that leaped 61 per cent in 2010, totaling 240,200 tonnes. In contrast world cargo volumes grew 19.8 per cent last year. Revenues totaled US$673 million, up 55 per cent year-on-year. Gains or losses were not disclosed in MUC. But ABC’s executive president Tatyana Arslanova assured that her airline was profitable last year. “In 2011 we forecast a tonnage rise of 31 per cent,” she announced. This assumption depends, however, on the delivery of the first of a total of five Boeing B747-8 freighters ABC has ordered at the Seattle-based plane maker. This is expected to happen later this year if Boeing doesn’t announce further programme delays. Initially the aircraft was scheduled to be handed over to launch customer Cargolux, 18 months ago but technical and organisational setbacks led to a series of delays. Not only ABC’s expected volume increase in 2011 depends partly on the B747-8’s delivery, but also the introduction of new routes and the upping of frequencies on existing lanes. Says head of marketing Wolfgang Meier: “After we commenced serving Moscow- Amsterdam-Chicago end of April we now intend to set up a second route to North America.” It will be either trans- Pacific or, alternatively, trans-Polar flights commencing in Shanghai and ending most probably in Chicago like the transatlantic route. “But I would not fully exclude serving another North American destination,” stated Meier. Which possible candidate this might be, including possibly New York, he did not reveal.