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Russian Volga-Dnepr leaves SALIS

From January 1, 2019, the Russian Volga will cease providing AN-124 capacity for EU and NATO states under NATO's heavy military air transport program SALIS (Strategic Airlift Interim Solution), which includes 17 European member states and Canada. The loss is sensitive: Under Salis, Antonov and Volga have each had an AN-124 permanently stationed at Leipzig-Halle Airport since March 2006, with additional uplift available at short notice.

Unfortunately, the SALIS Program Office did not succeed in overcoming the Russian withdrawal, despite the long negotiations. The move comes just over a year after the Russian freighter operator announced the end of the near-decade-long Russlan collaboration to market AN-124 capacity with Ukraine’s Antonov. A move thought to be in response to western sanctions on Russian companies. Negotiations conducted by the Salis steering board last week failed to avert the withdrawal. After Volga-Dnepr subsidiary AirBridgeCargo lost about half its 21 landing slots at Schiphol last year, Russia reportedly threatened to ban Dutch carriers from its airspace. Shortly after, KLM struck a deal with ABC over additional slots.

The ending of the Salis contract puts pressure on NATO and the EU, which need access to the world’s largest commercial cargo aircraft. This is a serious loss of capacity: the Ukrainian An-124s of Antonov's air transport industry are only flying 900 flights per year - the largest fleet with two Russian aircraft has been available to SALIS's designers for up to 2300 hours per year.

There is always the possibility that the withdrawal is part of a larger play by Volga-Dnepr president Alexey Isaikin, who is looking to set up a German cargo airline, with AN-124s registered in Germany, at Leipzig. By registering an AN-124 to a German company, the Volga-Dnepr group would no longer be caught in the crossfire of political skirmishes between Russia and elsewhere, which includes problems with Antonov maintenance. And as an EU company, it might get preferential treatment for military shipments over Ukraine’s Antonov. It also adds pressure on Germany, which is keen to develop Leipzig-Halle as a freight airport, to OK the new airline’s AOC and aircraft registration. (Although as one source told The Loadstar, Lufthansa Cargo was unlikely to welcome a new freighter airline on its doorstep, and would “go ape-shit”.)