Syrian Air’s Aircraft Predicament

Syrian Air is seeking to expand its fleet … but it has a problem … it can’t source effective aircraft for its fleet.  Since the United States imposed sanctions on Syria in 2004, and transactions with the Commercial Bank of SyriaSyrian Air has been unable to have access to new modern ‘western’ aircraft.’

Syrian Air, once a growing airline with a modern fleet, is now reduced to just seven Airbus A320-111s and two short haul ATR-72s … with no way to access long haul destinations.  While most airlines begin shopping for new aircraft before retiring older aircraft, Syrian Air is in a unique position, with no access to Boeing aircraft and the Syrian government not interested in aircraft comprised of more than 10% U.S. manufactured components, the airline is unable to further explore Airbus aircraft.

Recently Syrian Air intended to modernize its fleet, adding a total of 58 new Airbus aircraft by 2028, but that plan was scrapped as Airbus aircraft are comprised of more than 10% of its components manufactured in the U.S. Now the airline’s only option is to explore Russian aircraft … which poses some problems … keeping in mind that even Russia’s two major airlines, Aeroflot and S7, are converting their mainline fleets to entirely Boeing and Airbus planes.

The Russian commercial aircraft industry has been stalled for quite a while, with virtually no aircraft meeting Syrian Air’s intended needs … so where does this leave Syrian Air?

Syrian Air has begun to seriously explore the addition of the Tupolev 204 , however Tupolev is almost entirely out of the commercial aircraft industry.  Presently Tupolev has only produced less than 70 TU-204s … as well as only two TU-334s between 1999 and 2009 (at an estimated development cost of US$1billion) and received no orders for their TU-330 cargo/airlift aircraft.

While Tupolev had successfully produced more than 1,000  TU-154, from 1968 to 2010 (which had a humourous NATO identifier of “Careless”) … Tupolev’s commercial division has been struggling.  Most recently it suffered a further set back with Atlant-Soyuz, an airline controlled by Moscow’s government,  canceling its order for 15 TU-204s as it ponders adding additional Boeing aircraft to its fleet,  leaving the Tupolev production line empty.

This leaves Syrian Air and Tupolev in a precarious position.  Syrian Air needs aircraft and Tupolev needs orders … however Tupolev produces no aircraft meeting the usage specifications of Syrian Air.   Initially Syrian Air had intended to grow its fleet with a mix of Airbus A320, 330, 340, 350 aircraft.  All of these aircraft offer Syrian Air a common cockpit, some common maintenance and access to many service providers to reduce maintenance costs, as well as proven performance and most importantly the range Syrian Air needs to fly its routes and intended routes.

What does the TU-204 offer Syrian Air? A flying metal tube with wings that barely meets the airline’s minimum needs.

While the TU-204 may look strikingly similar to the Boeing 757-200, that is where any comparisons would end.   The TU-204s being explored by Syrian Air are the -124 and -214 models, with a maximum range of 2,500 or 2,700 miles, carrying a maximum of 210 passengers in a single class of service (in two classes of service 175 is a more likely configuration) … compared to a range of 3,200 miles offered by the Airbus A320, an aircraft that is less costly to operate over its lifespan and one that burns less fuel, further reducing its operating costs.

Yes, the A320 carries less passengers and a reduced cargo load compared to the TU-204, and while most of Syrian Air’s current routes are within the TU-204 range, the airline is already struggling to fill its 150 seats in its current aging A320 fleet that was acquired prior to current economic sanctions and ensuing political strife.

Does it make sense for Syrian Air to purchase aircraft with more seats when they cannot fill the seats the presently have?

Forgetting seats, fuel consumption, range and other important issues … a big issue here is not just for Syrian Air, but Tupolev as well. Tupolev needs a big order to maintain its commercial aircraft division, and while Syrian Air estimated they needed 58 aircraft, of varying sizes and performance ranges, by 2028… their interest in the TU-204 is a mere six aircraft, with a list price of approximately US$40mil.

The TU-204 price may be an up front bargain for Syrian Air, given that the A320 is an estimated US$73mil to US$81mil … but can US$240,000,000 and six aircraft save Tupolev? Certainly not.

Beyond Syrian Air looking at the TU-204, how will the airline that has its eye on returning to long-haul routes do so with no aircraft to achieve those goals?  Presently Syrian Air is looking at another nearly extinct aircraft, the Ilyushin IL-96-400, an aircraft that was so ineffective in terms of performance and fuel consumption that only 28 have ever been produced.  Syrian Air had previously agreed to purchase two IL-96-400s and an IL-96-300, but canceled the order once it reevaluated the economics of operating this aircraft … not to mention that in August of 2009 the Russian Ministry of Industry and Trade announced that manufacturing of the IL-96 would be halted due to the aircraft being “deemed inferior to counterparts.”

So … where does this leave Syrian Air? It leaves them in a position of either collapsing their airline or rethinking the its position on buying Airbus aircraft that have more than 10% of its components built in the United States from a European aircraft manufacturer.

Where does this leave Tupolev? It leaves them hoping they don’t need to shut down commercial production, but even if they are able to pick up an order for six TU-204s, it only briefly delays their likely demise.

…as for Ilyushin … they’ve already closed down production of the IL-96, and are not actively seeking new orders.

Happy Flying!

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