Hard landing for cargo firms hit by ban on ageing plane

Hundreds of staff are rendered jobless after use of the Soviet-era workhorse Antonov an-12 is forbidden following series of accidents.

SHARJAH // At offices in the emirate's airport free zone, where Russian and eastern European cargo aircraft operators once managed bustling transportation networks that crisscrossed the globe, business is a shadow of its former self. Flight crews and office staff, once numbering in the hundreds, have for the most part moved back to Russia and former Soviet republics such as Georgia.

Senior management at a half dozen businesses have kept bare-bones operations running, but only to keep valid their family's residency visas. The slump has been brought on by the ban on the Antonov An-12, the workhorse of the companies' transport operations. The ageing, four-engine turboprop aircraft was banned from UAE airspace by federal aviation authorities on March 1 following a series of accidents, one of which killed seven people, and a government inspection of operations in Ukraine.

Sharjah had become the Ukrainian-made plane's regional logistics and maintenance hub, but the ban has effectively brought that two-decade era to an end. "I'm bankrupt," said Valeriy Shmakov, the president of Air Victory Georgia. His company started operating in Sharjah eight years ago with six An-12s. His aircraft, forced to leave the country, are now idly parked thousands of kilometres away in Uganda, Chad and Somalia.

Like the dozens of other An-12 operators in Sharjah, his planes were used to fly loads into the darkest, most dangerous corners of the Earth - jungle runways in the Congo, dirt landing strips in the Sudan, war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now his biggest concern is what to do about his two children, aged five and 13. Both are enrolled in local schools. "My children, they are now from the UAE," said Mr Shmakov. "What will I do if I have to go back to Russia? It's a big, big problem.

"My life is in this country. How many other people have made their lives here? Too many." Others have more barbed opinions about the ban. "These aircraft have been violently pushed out," said Alexander Smolin, the general manager of Sky Support Service, a Sharjah-based company that also relied on the An-12. "The majority of us have given a third of our lives to this place. We've seen this place grow, and now they're kicking us out."

Some say there used to be 20 An-12 operators in Sharjah alone. Sharjah's Department of Civil Aviation could not be reached for comment. The companies said the An-12 operated legally throughout Europe and, in limited cases, in North America. "If a country says it's an 'open sky' country, it doesn't mean that they can open for some people, but not for others," said Natalia Fridinskaya, the general director of TransAviaService, a Georgian transport firm that operated from Sharjah for eight years.

The International Civil Aviation Organisation must be notified six months before an aircraft can be banned, she added. This was not so, according to Mohammed al Balooshi, the head of safety at the General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA). "We're a sovereign country and will do what's necessary to promote aviation safety in the UAE," he said. The main reasons for the ban were concerns about Antonov's maintenance and aircraft prolongation programmes, he said.

Last December, four GCAA inspectors were sent to the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, to audit Antonov's practices, which, Mr Balooshi said, were found to be deficient. That inspection was prompted by four accidents last year and the year before, one of which involved a Sharjah-bound An-12 that crashed near Fallujah, Iraq, in November 2008, killing all seven on board. Some planes involved in those incidents were maintained by one of Sharjah's two main Antonov maintenance hubs, one of which has been suspended by federal authorities since January.

GCAA officials suggested recently that Ukraine's civil aviation authority, along with Antonov, operated insufficient safety and oversight standards. "Mostly they [accidents] happen due to the lack of proper maintenance and after-sale support," said Alexander Kiva, the vice president of marketing and sales at Antonov. He was unaware of the An-12 being banned anywhere else in the world. "We will do our best in the coming weeks to resolve this question and, hopefully, to start operations [in the UAE] again." @Email:hnaylor@thenational.ae