Vladimir Putin has ordered around 500 Western-owned planes to remain in Russia, rather than being returned – in effect stealing them from the leasing firms that own them.
The official Tass news agency reported that the Russian president has “signed a law on support measures for civil aviation, providing the opportunity of registering rights to foreign airplanes leased by Russian companies and issuing domestic airworthiness certificates to them”.
A leading US aviation commentator said: “The nationalisation of 500 aircraft is under way inside Russia.”
Jon Ostrower, editor of The Air Current, added: “If completed, it will be the largest single civil fleet destruction activity in the history of aviation. These aircraft will never operate as part of the global fleet again.”
While some Russian-made aircraft are used on domestic flights within the world’s biggest country, all the leading airlines – including Aeroflot and BA’s former partner S7 – have fleets of modern Airbus and Boeing aircraft.
Most are owned by Western leasing companies, which have cancelled contracts, invalidated insurance and asked for the aircraft back.
AerCap of Ireland is the most exposed lessor.
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Crucially, Tass reported: “Amendments to the Russian Air Code and some other legislative acts make it possible for Russian airlines to keep the foreign aircraft fleet and give an opportunity to operate them on domestic lines.
“The law is aimed at preserving the foreign airplane fleet with Russian operators for purposes of smooth operation of civil aviation as part of anti-sanction measures.”
But taking ownership of Western aircraft fails to solve the problem of maintenance. International sanctions prohibit the supply of spare parts.
On Twitter, Brian Corbett responded to Mr Ostrower by saying: “Gonna be a lot of guys with Russian accents in Victorville looking for parts.”
He was referring to the “aircraft graveyard” at Victorville in the Californian desert, where hundreds of planes have been stored – many cannibalised for spare parts.
Even if the aircraft are eventually returned, there are fears that they may be prohibited from international aviation because of their uncertain maintenance history while in Russia.