This column usually has little time for state-owned airlines, but it must admit to a grudging respect for Aeroflot.
The headwinds facing Russia’s flag carrier include: a Russian economy savaged by low energy prices; the weak rouble; a collapse in international travel demand; and the integration of 6,000 staff from a bankrupt rival.
Transaero, once Russia’s largest privately-owned airline, went under last year, and it was left to Aeroflot to honour two million of its tickets and find roles for half its workforce.
The costs of doing so pushed Aeroflot to a $90 million loss last year, but despite Russia’s ongoing economic woe the airline expects to return to profit this year.
As Aeroflot’s share price has risen, talk of privatisation has intensified, yet chief executive Vitaly Saveliev seems against the idea.
For a start, he tells the Financial Times, the airline is now worth only half as much in dollar terms as it was two years ago because of the weaker rouble.
Obviously it makes sense for any country to maximise gains from sales of state assets, but Saveliev’s other objections reveal telling features of Russia’s air transport sector.
“We invest in Russian aircraft — those are also big expenses. Who will do that, if not Aeroflot?” he tells the FT.
Who else, indeed, though it is extraordinary that one of the most important figures in Russian aviation seems to be rubbishing the prospects of its Sukhoi Superjet and MC-21 aircraft programmes, even if he is correct in his analysis.
Saveliev also points out that privately owned airlines would struggle to offers acceptable air links across Russia’s vast, but sparsely peopled territory. This includes regions like Sakha – about the size of Western Europe but with the population of Cyprus.
Aeroflot may at times seem an overbearing beast, swallowing up other operators as they go under, but no other airline is resilient enough to keep all of Russia flying.