The Russian clientele, historically one of the drivers behind business aviation growth globally, has become crucial both for the European private charter market and for major OEMs in the challenging post-crisis environment. Whereas other European countries are reporting a 3-5% year-on-year decrease in flight activity, or struggling to overcome the stagnation curve, Russian demand for private charters has been growing at a more or less constant rate for the past three years. According to the Avinode online bizav charter system, the trend is here to stay: charter requests through the system grew 44% in 2011-2012, while in 2013 the growth "slowed" to a sound 21%. Even though Avinode warns these numbers are not directly linked to actual flights, because the "look-to-book" ratio for Russian charter brokers is much lower than for their European colleagues, the statistics still correlates nicely with the big picture: Russia is one of the strongest and fastest-growing single-country bizav markets in the world, and its position is as stable as ever.
Stable not only in terms of strong demand, but also in the market’s typical features and in the persistent drawbacks that inhibit natural development of the industry, which should normally accompany such impressive growth. According to Avinode, the vast majority of private flights in Russia link Moscow with destinations abroad, the most popular being Nice, Geneva, Dubai, Chambery, and London. The only domestic destination that made it to the Top 10 is St Petersburg (ranked 9th).
Wingx Advance data shows that Moscow’s Vnukovo is one of the busiest airports in Europe, behind Luton, Geneva, and Le Bourget. The Vnukovo 3 bizav terminal handled 19,587 flights in 2012, translating to about 60 flights per day on average. The number of business passengers serviced totaled 137,874 people. In the first six month of 2013 the terminal reported around 9,375 flights and 64,916 passengers serviced.
Russians traditionally prefer large-cabin, long-range jets for their private travel. The list of popular aircraft models opens with the Embraer Legacy 600, and includes the Bombardier Challenger 604 and Global Express, the Cessna Citation XLS, and a variety of larger Gulfstreams and Falcons, Avinode notes. Heavy jets account for 60% of all departures: 770 charter flights out of Russia were operated by ACJs in May 2013. These figures from the Wingx Advance monthly monitor are a good illustration of the sheer Russian scale.
Many OEMs confirm these estimations. According to Dassault Aviation, the Falcon fleet in Russia and other CIS countries has doubled over the past five years, with more than 60 Falcon jets now in operation. Seven new aircraft were delivered to the region in the first half of 2013 alone, accounting for some 15% of Dassault Falcon’s worldwide deliveries. Gulfstream Aerospace President Larry Flynn has told Russia & CIS Observer that 53 Gulfstream jets are now operated in Russia, and 23 more aircraft elsewhere in the CIS, comprising almost 40% of the OEM’s European fleet. Airbus Corporate Jets reports it has delivered more than 25 business jets to Russia and the CIS, or some 15% of global Airbus business fleet.
The number of business airliners supposedly owned by Russians but registered, operated, and serviced outside the country is estimated at anywhere between 350 and 550 units. The number of Western-built aircraft officially operated in Russia is below 50. High import taxes and VAT remain the largest impediment to bringing Western aircraft models to Russia and operating them under Russian jurisdiction. Nevertheless Bombardier forecasts 525 new business-jet deliveries to the region between 2012 and 2021.
Inside the country, a lack of oversight leads to an across-the-board practice of domestic commercial flights on foreign-registered aircraft being passed off as "private" (up to 75% of all domestic charters). This is in breach of all possible national and international cabotage regulations.
The local infrastructure has not improved much over the years. Apart from the new FBOs in St. Petersburg (which is about time, to say the least, since Russia’s northern capital is home to the annual Economic Forum) and Sochi (getting ready for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games), no major improvements have been made in terms of dedicated business aviation terminals and ground handling facilities across Russia’s vast territory. A lack of competition among FBOs at the Moscow airports results in unreasonably high prices.
So, absurd as it may sound, this statement by Derek Bloom, Partner, Capital Legal Services (the agency helps Russian clients solve legal issues associated with acquiring and operating business jets in the country) best describes the actual status quo: the business aviation industry in Russia is largely nonexistent. Huge amounts of money in the form of ownership fees, operating expenses, FBO, handling and maintenance costs, catering, staff wages and what not, end up outside Russia and never reach the Russian economy on the whole, nor its business aviation sector in particular. In his report, Bloom estimates the sum at nearly 1 billion euros per year. What is robbing Russia of all the benefits of developing this segment?
"Several Russian owners have told me that they would strongly prefer to register their aircraft in Russia, except for the single reason that they cannot afford to ‘waste money’ paying Russia’s 18% import VAT," Bloom says. "Russia’s import VAT may be easily avoided by registering their aircraft in Europe instead. If a Russian individual were to import an aircraft to Russia, the cost of the import VAT may become an unrecoverable cost for him or her. In contrast, if a Russian business earns significant VAT from the domestic sale of goods and services, it can recover the cost of import VAT by offsetting its VAT inputs against this VAT expense.
"Further, the supporting businesses for business aviation in Russia have geared themselves around servicing transient foreign-registered aircraft, and earn quite high fees for doing so. Accordingly, Russian regulators and leading industry players have gotten quite used to things as they are, though things as they are may not be in Russia’s best interests," he argues.
Bloom, with his extensive experience interpreting the Russian legislation, believes the recipe to solving the problem comprises three steps: introducing an exemption from import VAT (which would be a very welcome regulatory reform indeed); clamping down on cabotage flights within Russia; and stimulating competition among FBOs by demanding that at least two different organizations offer services in each sector of every airport (commercial passenger airlines, cargo carriers, and business charters).
This is not to say that nothing is being done to change the situation. The local industry body, the Russian United Business Aviation Association (RUBAA), is doing what it’s there for. "We are working on three things," says Executive Director Anna Serejkina, "These are lifting import taxes for aircraft with an empty weight of under 2 tons [the import taxes for aircraft with empty weights between 2 and 20 tons have already been abolished – ed.], creating a dedicated set of regulations for business aviation, and simplifying customs procedures for business aircraft."
However, there is one factor extrinsic to aviation per se which Bloom does not calculate into his projections (and of which RUBAA is probably very well aware): the overall climate in Russia — stitched with details such as the security of ownership rights, the fairness of justice, people’s trust in the incumbent, business transparency, social stability, etc. — is quite unfavorable. This is why it is safe to predict that even if certain improvements finally occur, the majority of high-net-worth individuals will still prefer to keep their expensive assets outside the country.