The smuggling trail keeping Russian passenger jets in the air

In July 2022, the staff at Vnukovo airport in Moscow found an unusual item in the luggage of a passenger: a piece of equipment that engineers call an “air data inertial reference unit”.

Modern passenger aircraft are packed with sophisticated technology and few devices are more delicate than these advanced pieces of avionics, which use gyroscopes and accelerometers to monitor the twists and turns.

According to paperwork that was later filed by customs officers, the item weighed 11kg and was listed as costing $40,000. It was destined for S7, Russia’s second-largest airline.

Nor was this a one-off occurrence. By the end of 2022, a further 10 ADIRUs sent in passenger luggage destined for S7 were reported in customs forms at Moscow airports.

The luggage trade is a striking example of the unorthodox supply routes that Russian airlines have been forced to rely on since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Hit by sweeping sanctions and export controls, they have had to reinvent the ways they source parts in order to keep their planes in the air.

Sanctions represent a massive threat to air travel in Russia. Aircraft require continuous support and regular software upgrades, as well as a regimen of checks — and the Russian companies are now largely cut off from their suppliers. Airbus, for example, told the FT that “there is no legal way that genuine aircraft parts, documentation and services can get to Russian carriers”.

Before the war, Boeing and Airbus planes comprised more than 70 per cent of Russia’s fleet of aircraft in service. Cirium, a UK-based aviation data company, estimates that, as recently as March 2024, 87 per cent of the total hours logged by Russian airlines were in Boeing or Airbus aircraft. Even Russian-built aircraft are reliant on myriad spare parts made abroad.

So far, there are few signs that sanctions have significantly disrupted air travel within Russia. Cirium data shows that flight hours are around the prewar level.

But data collected by the FT shows that there has been a sharp drop in the amounts of components entering Russia over the past two years.

Using Russian customs data from Maxim Mironov, a professor at the IE business school in Madrid, Corisk, a risk management consultancy, and commercial sources, the FT has been able to analyse the flow of parts into Russia.

These filings, which the Russian authorities have continued to collect but which are not intended for publication, consistently show the collapse in volumes of imports both for specific components and for the Russian airline sector as a whole.

For example, the ability of S7 and its subsidiaries to obtain parts at will has been devastated — from peaks of over $100mn per month in late 2021 to well under $20mn in most months over the past two years.

Russian airlines have made up some of this shortfall by using a sprawling network of sometimes fly-by-night companies.

The country’s storied aerospace sector — replete with famous names like Sukhoi, Tupolev and Ilyushin — is currently reliant on a range of tiny artisanal suppliers, many of them based in the UAE.

Russia is also taking steps to prolong the life of foreign-made parts. Andrei Litvinov, a former Aeroflot pilot who retired after a 40-year career, told the FT: “Take, for example, the Superjet 100 [a regional passenger jet]. It’s supposed to be made out of Russian parts, but the filters . . . they’re French. And when they get clogged, they need to be replaced. But because of sanctions, now they take them off, clean them, and put them back instead.”

Concerns about Russian airline safety are growing. The International Civil Aviation Organization, the UN agency responsible for air traffic, gave Russia a “red flag” in 2022 for failing to meet its “airworthiness” criteria.

Jan-Arwed Richter, founder of Jacdec, an independent aviation safety company, says it has observed a rise in Russian incidents, but one that may be explained by improvements to its own data collection. The first effect of sanctions, he says, would be a rise in reliability problems and flight cancellations rather “than putting the safety of a flight at risk”.

Andrey Patrakov, founder of RunAvia, a Russian flight safety service, told the FT last year he had not flown with a Russian airline since March 2022. He said: “I don’t fly in Russia. I travel in Russia by train or I don’t travel at all. I fly abroad only with foreign companies. I even take those Armenian or Moldovan companies which before I used to think were a bit obscure, now I think they’re less dangerous than any of our Aeroflot planes. Or even S7.”

The aircraft maintenance industry is wide, deep and complicated. Michigan-based consultancy AeroDynamic Advisory estimates the world’s airlines spend $45bn a year on replacement parts.

But while the owner of a plane must be able to account for where the parts are from and only use certified parts, there is no requirement on manufacturers to track where products go. After servicing and certification, parts can then be restored to service on other aircraft. Retired planes can also be cut into spare parts.

There is, says Kevin Michaels, head of AeroDynamic Advisory, “a lot of inventory spread out across the globe in a lot of places”.

Russia now faces the challenge of sneaking supplies out of this pool of parts. The small company that appears to have packed that first inertial reference unit into passenger luggage has become their main supplier of this sensitive equipment.

Turboshaft, a modest Emirati business registered to a warehouse in Sharjah Airport, is a microcosm for the way that Russia is obtaining its parts. The company is run by Timur Badr, a 39-year-old Russian gym enthusiast. Born in Astrakhan, Badr’s family has lived in Dubai since he was a child. His UAE residency permit lists him as a citizen of St Kitts and Nevis.

According to customs data, Turboshaft was not listed as a supplier to S7 in the year prior to the full-scale invasion. It first appears as a supplier of the airline in May 2022, when it delivered a steel rotary valve and the “O-ring” for the flush on an Airbus toilet. Within weeks, it was sending sensitive electronics in luggage. In total, Turboshaft has shipped $1.5mn of goods to S7 since the start of the war, according to the customs documentation.

A representative of Badr told the FT that he been a supplier of S7 before the full-scale invasion, but that he had stopped selling parts to Russia in February 2022. He added that Turboshaft is “aware of, and respectful of, the international sanctions regime”.

The improvised imports of ADIRUs fits a broader pattern. Prior to the war, customs records show that 45 per cent of S7’s US-made components came from the US directly. A similar volume of American goods came via France, Germany, the UK and Netherlands.

Since then, less than 3 per cent are listed as coming from those countries. Around a tenth come from China, a fifth come from the Maldives, another fifth from Turkey and a third from the UAE. In most cases, these come from companies of similar profile to Turboshaft.

The UAE is a central hub in this trade for good reason: it has long been seen as a key location for the transnational smuggling networks which supply airline parts to Iran, whose airline industry has had to cope with a variety of sanctions regimes since 1979.

Turboshaft has itself been involved in trades involving Iran. In 2016, it bought two mothballed Airbus aircraft from the Greek government for $4.2mn. Badr sold the aircraft on, and they rapidly appeared in Iran. One of the aircraft was taken up by the sanctioned Iranian airline Mahan Air. The other eventually joined the sanctioned Syrian Air, for which it still flies.

Badr’s representative said that he bought the planes “through an auction and sold them [on]. Turboshaft FZE had no knowledge or intention as to any future use.”

Customs returns also show another entity supplying Russia — Treetops Aviation — with which Turboshaft shares a very close relationship. In some documents, Treetops has given postal addresses also used by Turboshaft. One of those addresses, in a high-rise in Dubai, was registered to Badr.

Furthermore, documents seen by the FT show Treetops was the listed source of goods provided by Badr to a US customer. A phone number used by Treetops has also been used by a relative of Badr’s.

Badr’s representative rejected these points and stated that “Turboshaft FZE legitimately traded spare parts with Treetops as part of [its] routine and legitimate business”.

Since the start of the war, Treetops has become a significant supplier to Russia. In 2023, customs documents show that it shipped $7mn of parts to S7. As the parts supply market has fractured, it has become the second largest supplier of parts to S7 — and the largest not to be directly the subject of US sanctions.

How did someone like Badr get involved in supplying Russian airlines? While the businesses involved in this trade have been transformed in the last two years, the networks that have sprung into action to supply Russia are not new.

Turboshaft itself was established in 2011. Badr used to sell parts found in Russia and Ukraine to the rest of the world, according to Dave Hansen, director of operations at Aermotive, a parts supplier in Mesa, Arizona. But there have been complaints about the quality of products Turboshaft was selling. One sale to Aermotive from 2021 led to a court case. Last year, an Arizona judge found in favour of Aermotive’s complaint that Turboshaft had sold it an alternator which proved to be unserviceable.

Hansen said: “The quality of what he was selling was terrible. That’s why we ended up in a lawsuit. He sold us engine starters that we tested and were no use except as paperweights. There was a constant concern about what he was representing.”

Since the onset of the war, Turboshaft appears to have reversed its business model; customs records suggest Turboshaft started sourcing goods abroad for shipment into Russia.

One unexplained feature of Badr’s business is his relationship with the Russian authorities. In 2020, a warrant was issued in Russia for Badr’s arrest. His warrant documentation says he is wanted for failing to declare the import of a sum of cash.

A representative for Badr said that this warrant was issued after Badr refused to pay a bribe to the Russian customs authorities. He also stated that Badr regards the Putin administration as “totalitarian”.

Badr’s listing on the official Russian ‘wanted’ website
Badr’s listing on the official Russian ‘wanted’ website

But customs records suggest Badr may have used his skills in the service of the Russian security state in 2022 — after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

A company called Black Metal FZE, which is linked to Badr, has been identified as a supplier to the Russian military by C4ADS, the Washington-based defence think-tank. While no company of that precise name is currently registered in the UAE, Badr has previously traded using the same name. Turboshaft’s website continues to be registered to “Black Metal FZE”.

Black Metal is the listed supplier in the customs documents of $2.1mn of items to the 275th Aviation Repair Plant, a Russian installation in Krasnodar that repairs military aircraft. Many of the shipments were marked in the customs dockets as being Czech parts for aircraft instrumentation and avionics systems.

The items, which were recorded as having been originally produced by the Czech companies Technometra Cesky Brod and Mesit ASD, were marked as being for military use. There is no suggestion the producers knew about this transaction. The Black Metal filings found by C4ADS also reveal that the shipment was arranged by Rosoboronexport, a Russian military goods import-export agency.

All of the filings for Black Metal’s exports to the military installation show the company using a Dubai address previously registered to Badr personally.

The allure of selling aircraft parts to Russia is clear; sanctions and export controls have dramatically increased the cost of sensitive imports.

Versions of devices such as ADIRUs that cost $50,000 to $70,000 on the open market are now routinely sold into Russia for more than $120,000. One customs filing submitted by Treetops lists an object described as an ADIRU whose weight implies only one item was in the package. It was sold for more than $600,000.

Patrakov, the expert on Russian aviation safety, says that big mark-ups are being offered across the spectrum. He uses the example of a standard in-air anti-collision system. “The size of a shoebox, it’s a required feature for the safety of the aircraft . . . One unit, depending on the airplane, costs $15,000-25,000. But now the cost of shipping it to Sheremetyevo [in Moscow] is over $100,000 per unit.

“The problems caused by all these sanctions . . . were extinguished with a flood of money. The airlines had the opportunity to buy parts for more money in smaller volumes and lower quality, but still meeting the minimum safety threshold.”

He adds: “Maintaining airworthiness is expensive . . . So why is all of this still working, and the planes even flying? There was unprecedented support for the airline industry.”

The state has been a major player in keeping civil aviation in the air. In 2022, Rosaviatsia — the Russian state agency that oversees civil aviation — received Rbs200bn (€2.7bn) from the government, of which over 70 per cent or Rbs144bn (€1.9bn) was not planned before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, according to the Audit Chamber, a watchdog that monitors government spending in Russia.

Most of this went to “subsidise domestic flights . . . in the face of external sanctions”, the Chamber’s analysts wrote. For 2023, the subsidies shrunk to Rbs57bn (€770mn).

Rosatom, the country’s nuclear champion and a high-tech manufacturing power, is already working on making parts that were once imported.

As imports have shrunk, the Russian aviation authorities have responded by loosening some rules — such as automatically extending airworthiness certifications for aircraft to extend the lifetimes of parts.

Cannibalisation of planes is expected to follow. An official Russian government plan, published in June 2022, stated that a fall-off in flights was expected as planes were retired and “partially dismantled” to be used for spare parts. “At least 70 per cent of the foreign aviation fleet will remain in operation by the end of 2025, meeting the projected capacity needs,” the plan claims.

In the end, however, losing access to the technical support of the manufacturers and the ability to replace specific parts is expected to lead to planes becoming unserviceable.

At a meeting in August 2023, Sergei Chemezov, the head of Rostec, Russia’s defence-industrial conglomerate, told Vladimir Putin that “from 2025, we will start losing all our foreign planes, because they will need full maintenance overhauls and so on”.

There is still no clear solution to this problem: in spring 2023, state-owned Aeroflot, Russia’s biggest airline, sent at least one of its planes — an Airbus A330 — to Iran for servicing “as a trial step”, but was not entirely happy with the service. 

In the long term, Russia has unveiled a plan to build 1,000 new aircraft by 2030. The state allocated Rbs580bn (€10.7bn) in 2022 to buy aircraft from foreign lessors and aid domestic aircraft construction. The plan, however, has already suffered delays.

Litvinov, the former pilot, believes Russia should have focused on domestic airplane production years ago. “Foreign planes will go into disrepair and there will be nothing to replace them with,” he says. “That’s what is critical.”

He adds: “The problem is not that [the planes] will all start falling out of the sky every day, but that there may come a point when there will simply be nothing to fly on.”

Additional reporting by Anastasia Stognei and Max Seddon

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