With everything that’s happened over the past few months few thought that the 737 MAX would fly again in Russia. And yet it IS! How? And why?
After the type’s grounding, each country went about the recertification of the 737 MAX in a number of different ways. The United States, Canada and Europe (i.e. EASA member states) did their own flight testing and certification work. Other countries oversaw these processes and adopted the results of one of them. Other countries also did this, but only after waiting to see how the type’s return to service would go, elsewhere.
We’ve often discussed China, as an imported market where Boeing’s aircraft still hasn’t returned to service. Test flights are underway there, and Boeing has even made an aircraft delivery. But what about Russia and its relationship with the 737 MAX? There are airlines there with MAX orders, but we’ve heard very little about the type in this country.
Note that this isn’t something that started in 2022, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The grounding of the 737 MAX happened in 2019, but since its ungrounding in late 2020, there has been little focus on Russia. A simple explanation of this has to do with the size of the Russian aviation market. Russia may be many times bigger than China, as a country. But China’s aircraft market is bigger.
Russia, The 737 MAX, Lessors And… A Friend
We recently saw that Siberia Airlines (S7) in Russia asked for permission to return two 737 MAX aircraft to lessors. Russian authorities have generally put obstacles to aircraft (and pilots) leaving the country. But in this case, Siberia Airlines seemed to have a point. With seemingly no prospect of certification, the airline had reason to hold on to them.
Siberia only has two of these jets, that it took delivery of before the type’s grounding. But interestingly, the newest development around the 737 MAX in Russia doesn’t have to do with Siberia’s jets. Rather, it has to do with a Belavia 737 MAX. Or more specifically, THE Belavia 737 MAX, a 737-8.
The airline took delivery of a single 737-8, on the 7th of April 2021. However, the aircraft only remained in service until the 28th of May that year. This was likely because of sanctions after the forced diversion/hijacking of a commercial aircraft. The news is that the Belavia 737 MAX is flying again – and it is doing so over Russia.
The first of these flights took place last week, on the 20th of July. It was flight B2-735, from Minsk International (UMMS) in Belarus to Tbilisi International (UGTB) in Georgia. The aircraft performed several more flights, at first only between Belarus and airports in Georgia. But to do this Belavia had to fly its 737 MAX over Russia.
Belavia 737 MAX – Not Just OVER Russia!
This explains why Belavia had previously grounded the aircraft. With European sanctions after that forced diversion/hijacking, Belavia couldn’t fly into EASA-regulated European countries (i.e. nearly all of them). Russia was still friendly, but it hadn’t ungrounded the 737 MAX. With more sanctions since the Ukraine invasion, the only way Belavia could fly this one jet is if Russia permitted it over its airspace.
And this is exactly what happened. But it’s not ALL that’s happened. Initially, it seemed that Belavia did not intend to fly its 737 MAX into Russia itself. However, more recently the airline has expanded the destinations of this aircraft. They now include Baku Heydar Aliyev International (UBBB) in Azerbaijan. And more importantly, since the 25th of July, the aircraft has been flying into Domodedovo International (UUDD) in Moscow, Russia.
So it’s official: the Russian aviation authority (Rosaviatsia) has ungrounded the 737 MAX. But it did so rather quietly. The closest thing to direct information on the matter, comes from Belarus, specifically Belavia. In a statement on social media, the carrier announced that “Russia has allowed 737 MAX flights”. However, the statement adds that the ban remains in effect for “unfriendly states”.
That seems like an odd distinction to make. In essence, Russia has now banned aircraft from all “unfriendly” states, regardless of their type. But at the moment, we are missing some essential information in this story. As far as we know, Russia did not perform any recertification flights for the 737 MAX.
A Formal Process?
So under what conditions is Russia allowing the type to operate? Is it adopting FAA (US), EASA (Europe) or Transport Canada’s conditions for its return? We can only speculate on these questions. Many observers describe the development as a bit of help for Belarus and Belavia, the country’s flag carrier.
But obviously, all this inevitably brings us back to those two 737 MAX airliners that Siberia has, parked in Russia itself. Does all this mean that the Russian carrier can fly them, too? So far, it hasn’t. More importantly, it appears that Siberia Airlines hasn’t flown them even for maintenance flights, since their grounding in 2019.
So we don’t know if these aircraft incorporate the software and hardware fixes for all MAX models. This wasn’t a factor for Belavia’s jet, which the airline picked up after the grounding. But because of sanctions, if the two Siberia 737s don’t have the necessary modifications, presumably they can’t get them now!
So watch this space. We know that Russia will struggle to get access to the parts and maintenance it needs, to keep its Western fleet in service. In any case, a few months ago few would have guessed that Russia would see the return of the 737 MAX in service, before China.