What now, poor Ilyushin?

The Middle East loves its Soviet freighters. However, it’s hard to escape the feeling that these planes are living on borrowed time and the more time goes on, the more difficult it will be to support and maintain Antonovs and Ilyushins.

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By  David Ingham Published  December 6, 2006

The Middle East loves its Soviet freighters. That was one of the main findings to come out of this magazine’s first annual Middle East Fleet Survey.

Although they are prevalent right throughout the massive, loosely defined Middle East, these grand old men of the sky are particularly popular in North Africa. There, Libyan Arab Air Cargo has 9 Antonov and 16 Ilyushin planes in service and stored. In North Africa, as a whole, 29 out of 44 dedicated freighters belonging to airlines there are Ilyushin or Antonov models.

In the rest of the Middle East (the Levant, Gulf and Iran) Boeing and Airbus planes are far more prevalent, but there are still plenty of Soviet planes still in operation. IRBIS, Maximus and Air West are all sizeable users.

The old Antonovs and Ilyushins certainly have their unique selling points. Their design makes them easy to land at remote air fields, they are excellent for carrying outsize pieces, and their on-board equipment makes them well suited for use at airports that lack sophisticated groundhandling infrastructure.

On the other hand, most Soviet era planes are at least twenty years old and do not stack up well when it comes to measures such as fuel efficiency, noise pollution and emissions. Also, whilst the companies that developed these planes may still exist, they seem to have little interest in continuing to develop them.

It’s hard to escape the feeling that these planes are living on borrowed time and the more time goes on, the more difficult it will be to support and maintain Antonovs and Ilyushins. In the UAE, aviation authorities have already mooted the possibility of a ban on all planes over 25 years old, which would be pretty bad for the region’s Soviet era freighters.

The key question is what lies in store for these venerable planes. Should operators start thinking now about how to replace them or is it safe to hang on for as long as possible? Will some operators just bow out of the market, deciding that the cost of replacing their planes isn’t justified. What do you think? What lies in store for the Middle East’s Soviet freighter fleet.

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