It’s official. Both Ukraine-based Antonov Company and Russia-based Volga-Dnepr Group have confirmed they will end their decade-long sales joint venture, and go it alone in the outsize and heavylift marketplace beginning 1 January.
The two companies created the joint venture, Ruslan International, in 2006 to jointly market their combined An-124-100 fleets. Given that their airline subsidiaries, Antonov Airlines and Volga-Dnepr Airlines, operate nineteen of the world’s twenty-one An-124 aircraft, Ruslan had an effective monopoly on the outsize/heavylift market — anyone needing to move anything too big to fit through the nose door of a 747 freighter had little choice but to deal with Ruslan.
The venture ran smoothly for ten years, continuing even in the face of something close to a state of war between Russia and Ukraine. Whether that political/military friction had anything to do with the dissolution of Ruslan International is not clear. In their announcements the two companies were effusive in their praise for one another, and included not a single word about the reason for the breakup, but it seems likely that a Ukraine/Russia disagreement over certification and maintenance of the An-124 played at least some part.
Oleksandr Kotsuba, President of the Antonov Group, was quoted this summer as saying his company, which designed the An-124, would cut all ties with Russian firms by the end of the year, and also threatening a flight ban on all Russian-registered An-124s for operation outside of Russia. He said that international aviation law required technical checks and maintenance on An-124s be performed by Antonov, and that since such work had been performed by unauthorized Russian companies, he would call on national aviation regulators, as well as IATA and ICAO, to forbid operation of the aircraft outside of Russia.
That threat seems to have been withdrawn, as Volga-Dnepr noted in its announcement that its “business collaboration with Antonov will continue for the technical aspects of airworthiness and flight safety support of its An-124-100 fleet.”
Following the break-up, Volga-Dnepr will market its heavylift capacity (including twelve An-124s and three Il-76s), alongside the capacity of its scheduled-service subsidiary AirBridgeCargo Airlines, through its well-established Cargo Supermarket program.
What Antonov will do to market the capacity of its seven An-124s and one An-225 is less clear. In its announcement, Antonov said it was “pleased to introduce its Antonov Airlines team in the UK which will take the lead in the global sales and operations of this unique cargo aircraft.” But who is on that team? Antonov went on to say: “Dreamlifts Ltd (trading as Antonov Airlines) is managed by an international group of well-known experts from the outsize and heavyweight cargo industry.”
While we have not been able to confirm it, our guess is that the Dreamlifts team will include several former execs from charter specialist Chapman Freeborn’s US operations, possibly working through Maltese company AirX. For more on that, see Invisible Cargo Connections, which we published two months ago.
But regardless of who is involved in the Dreamlifts operation, following ten years of cooperation, Antonov will now be competing with Volga-Dnepr.