Marketing the capacity of a combined fleet of 17 AN-124-100s must be like trying to corral a herd of rogue elephants. Butit is a task that seems to have been achieved with remarkable success through a unique joint venture.
Ruslan International was formed six years ago by Antonov Airlines and Volga-Dnepr Airlines to create a single marketing and sales operation. The objective was to provide the market with a consistent source of AN-124-100 capacity, with 10 aircraft provided by Volga-Dnepr and seven from Antonov Airlines. For the two operators, it created the opportunity to optimize the utilization of their respected fleets. One of the biggest drags on the two previously separate sales operations was the amount of empty leg flying both carriers were undertaking.
Ruslan International was born of an already initiated cooperation between the two airlines through the Ruslan Salis project to provide NATO with two AN-124-100 aircraft on instant standby. To meet this requirement, an aircraft from each company is permanently on station at Leipzig/Halle airport in Germany. The Ruslan Salis contract has recently been extended for two years.
Testifying to its independence as a completely separate sales and marketing tool, Ruslan International is a UK-based company responsible for reporting its own accounts and results. Provisional results for 2011 show that the company arranged more than 700 individual or multiple flights over the year on behalf of its two shareholders. This reflects a 21.5 percent increase on 2010, with overall revenues up by 28 percent. Unsurprisingly, fuel remained the highest operating cost factor, accounting for 34 percent of total costs. Even so, the company is expecting to announce a multimillion-dollar pretax profit for 2011, compared with a marginal loss the previous year.
According to Michael Goodisman, business development manager for Ruslan International, the dynamics of the outsized charter business are changing. “Analysis of our 2011 results show that although our customer base has remained broad, the range of cargo carried has narrowed,” he said.
Goodisman attributes this to rising fuel costs, which has further widened the cost variation between an AN-124-100 charter and the use of conventional shipping methods. The imposition of the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme has only served to further exacerbate charter costs. He added that this combination of factors has prevented Ruslan from filling unused capacity with general cargo, which had been done in the past. But the kicker for Ruslan International, and the proof of its worth, is the fact that it has less and less unused capacity to fill.
“In the early days of the commercial operation of the AN-124-100s, you could reckon on empty leg sectors accounting for 45 percent of flying time, which then was deemed acceptable,” Goodisman said. “The efficiencies we have gained over the past six years means that we have been able to reduce empty flying to less than 25 percent of total hours flown.” This, he said, has increased overall yields and reduced the need to go chasing marginally rated general cargo.
In effect, with the general market downturn, Ruslan International has reverted to using the AN-124-100 for what it does best — carrying heavy and outsized cargo. The high cost of such charters has to be put into perspective. “Conventional shipping methods will often get the same job done far more cheaply,” Goodisman said. “But an AN-124-100 charter can often mean getting a production plant up and running two weeks earlier or a gas platform back on line within days.”
For Ruslan International Vice President Valery Kulbaka, the joint venture is all about the complete utilization of their aircraft. This feat is achievable because of the depth of the undertaking. “Operating the two fleets under one management means we are more likely to have an aircraft available near to where it is needed, enabling us to pass back efficiency savings to our customers,” he said.
One efficiency even Ruslan International has failed to achieve is the high number of crew required to operate an AN-124-100, which doggedly remains at about 20 for every flight. “There are a myriad of handling systems on the aircraft, each of which requires a specialist to carry out line maintenance,” Goodisman said. “That is not about to change anytime soon.”
Ruslan International officials have further developed the joint venture concept to enable both partners to pool spare parts and share loading equipment. The joint venture also acts as the focal point for the efforts by both airlines to restore production of the AN-124-100.