Editor’s Note: This story was updated Feb.26, 2022, 11 a.m. ET with more on the An-225 Mriya.
Ukraine is home to several all-cargo airlines that operate unique Soviet-era freighters.
Antonov Airlines, the largest and most internationally known of the carriers, is still operating some of its super-jumbo An-124 cargo jets, but others in the fleet remain stranded at the Hostomel Airport near Kyiv, according to aircraft tracking site Flightradar24.com. Constanta Airlines, another cargo airline, is partially functioning with aircraft it has outside of Ukraine.
The inability of any Ukrainian freighters to continue operating will have minimal impact on the overall cargo market, but losing access to An-124s will be a blow for shippers of unique, outsize cargo such as helicopters, trains, turbines and fire engines — or anyone else with a large conventional load. And any degradation of cargo capacity hurts cargo owners now because reduced levels of passenger flying have left cargo capacity at least 10% below pre-pandemic levels, by various counts.
Eleven cargo-only airlines operate in Ukraine with a combined fleet of 55 aircraft, according to data provided by aviation analytics firm Cirium.
Antonov Airlines has seven An-124 mega-freighters, an An-22 and the world’s one — and only — An-225, a six-engine behemoth that can carry 225 tons of cargo and is nicknamed Mriya, or Dream, in Ukrainian.
Two of the An-124s flew from Linz, Austria, to Leipzig Airport in Germany Friday, according to Flightradar24. The tracking site shows one aircraft in Nagoya, Japan; another scheduled to fly Friday from Guam to Cairns Airport in Australia; and another that moved from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, to another airfield in the country. Two of the An-124s, the An-22 (a large four-engine turboprop) and the An-225 are stuck on the ground in Ukraine.
Antonov Airlines officials have not responded to messages over the past week.
The An-124’s unique features include two internal cranes, nose-and-tail loading with expanded ramps, and multi-leg landing gear each with 24 wheels that enable it to tilt the fuselage lower for easier loading and unloading.
The An-225 was originally built in the 1980s to transport rockets and space shuttles for the Soviet space program. The Antonov-124, the largest commercial aircraft in regular operation, is puny by comparison, holding a mere 120 tons.
Ukrainian forces have recaptured Kyiv-Antonov Airport, where Antonov Airlines is based, according to National Public Radio. Unconfirmed images posted by Where is Russia, a Twitter site that tracks Russian military movements around the world, show extensive damage at Antonov Airport, including an explosion near what appears to be some type of Antonov aircraft.
On Saturday, Feb. 26, parent company Antonov Design Bureau said on Twitter it can’t confirm the condition of the Mriya, but that the latest reports it had are that it is intact.
Constanta Airlines operates a fleet of nine An-26 twin-engine turboprop freighters. Some of them continue to operate in Europe, while others are grounded in Ukraine, according to a source familiar with the company’s activities.
All the Antonov aircraft were designed by Ukraine-based Antonov Design Bureau.
Cargo airlines like Antonov and Constanta can continue to operate depending on existing or ad hoc bilateral agreements between countries because the flights effectively will fall under so-called “seventh freedom” flying privileges, which don’t require an air service to connect to the home country for passenger or cargo service to a third country.
Ukrainian airspace is closed to commercial traffic because of the hostilities. The European Union Aviation Safety Agency has extended its buffer for flights around Belarus and Russia to 200 nautical miles, warning operators that midrange missiles from the war zone could penetrate into controlled airspace.