Business aviation visitors to Russia will find that conditions are constantly changing — generally for the better. However, operating in Russia is far from straightforward. Careful advance planning will pay dividends and avoid frustration for passengers and embarrassment for the crew.
The past few years have seen significant changes in the Russian business aviation fleet. Many older Soviet-built aircraft, such as Yakovlev YAK-40s and Tupolev TU-124s, have been retired and replaced by modern Western-built business jets. In many cases, these are registered outside Russia, in such territories of convenience as Aruba, the Cayman Islands and the Isle of Man, and are operated by non-Russian AOC holders.
Operating procedures in Russia have changed, too, with airspace above the transition level now referenced by flight levels and in feet — although below the transition altitude heights are still denominated in meters. Crews should expect to be given pressure settings in QFE (field elevation) rather than QNH (adjusted to sea level) for arrival at Russian airports.
For arrivals into Moscow, ATC will be in English, but in the wider CIS controllers only speak Russian, and it is mandatory to carry a Russian navigator/interpreter on internal flights. The navigator will handle ATC transmissions and be familiar with local arrival and departure procedures. Requests for navigators should be made as far in advance as possible so as to keep costs to a minimum and should be lodged with the arrival permit submission.
Russia requires advance passenger information system (APIS) compliance for business aircraft. This applies to both passengers and crew. While there is a clear mechanism for airline passengers, it seems that an effective system for business aviation has not yet been established.
For international business aircraft, the system for arrival permits has been improved and applications no longer have to go through the military authorities. The new system, applying to aircraft with up to 19 passenger seats, now takes one business day and the permit covers both arrival and departure within the 48-hour validity period. If you’re going to exceed the 48 hours, a departure permit (applied for by your handler) will be required. The permit is route-specific and details of crew members must be given. Russian visas are, of course, required for all passengers and crew, and must be applied for well in advance of the trip — although it is understood that crew members can still obtain visas on arrival at Moscow’s Domodedovo (DME), Sheremetyevo (SVO) and Vnukovo (VKO).
Planning and preparedness
While facilities for business aircraft are undoubtedly improving, this is not the case for all large Russian cities. Operators should not count on quick and efficient fueling and ground handling, either — nor on hangarage availability, which can be a significant issue in the depths of winter. Advance engagement of a handling agent at any Russian airport is a wise move because the language barrier can cause endless frustration. In addition, a good handling agent will smooth the way through customs and immigration, ensure that fueling is carried out, arrange catering, and coordinate changes to your schedule. If you get really good service, tipping the ground staff is nice, but not mandatory — and be aware that such a gesture to government employees is absolutely prohibited.
However efficient your agent may be, you’re well advised to allow at least three hours for pre-departure arrangements as delays are inevitable. It’s also wise to carry aircraft tow bars together with other supplies that would normally be available from your FBO.
Maintenance will be available at large city airports, but it could entail a technician coming from another airport — and the further one goes from Moscow the fewer facilities are available, so self sufficiency is vital.
Long-term parking is at a premium at many airports, particularly those serving Moscow and St Petersburg, so visitors may need to reposition for longer layovers, perhaps to Finland, where parking is available at Helsinki/Vantaa (HEL), or to Tallinn, Estonia (TLL).
Overall, the message to would-be Russian bizjet visitors is that there are complications, but careful advance planning should result in a successful trip.