They wanted a big market, so why are cargo's biggest fliers running out of room?
If nothing else, the gargantuan Soviet-era Antonov-124 "Ruslan" freighters are not supposed to run out of room. But they may be doing just that. "Right now, our fleet and others are completely sold out," said W. R. Christopher Foyle, chairman and managing director of Air Foyle Ltd., the United Kingdom-based Western marketing arm for an armada of the Russian aircraft. "We've never been in this situation, where we're all sold out at the same time and we've got people calling us all the time and we haven't got anything available."
But it's also cause for worry. At the two factories building An-124s - one in Kiev, Ukraine, and one in Ulyanovsk, Russia production has stopped or slowed to a crawl. "Our operating partner has encountered difficulties in keeping the An-124 in production and in service due to industrial, financial and political problems within the Commonwealth of Independent States," said Bruce Bird, director of Air Foyle's traffic division.
The problems come at an odd time for the outsized cargo specialists: so-called "project cargo" may be a small niche in the freight field, but it has grown in importance as shippers and forwarders are now more willing to use the oversized and expensive aircraft to fill special needs.
Since their commercial introduction in 1989, the giant fuel-guzzling beasts have worked on the fringes of the air cargo market, snapping up odd loads that couldn't fit in an MD-11 or 747 freighter or wait for a berth in a container ship, such as helicopters, airport jetways, a Coca-Cola bottling line and oil rig equipment, to name a few.
The plane has 150 metric tons of capacity (120 transocean) and the An-124's two Western proponents - Air Foyle, the sales agent for the Antonov Design Bureau of Kiev in Ukraine, which developed the An-124 for the Soviet military, and U.K. rival HeavyLift Cargo Airlines, in a joint venture with Russia's Volga-Dnepr Airlines - carved out a mildly profitable niche. Together, they operate 15 of the 20 An-124s in service, with the rest scattered among Russian carriers, including Aeroflot.
But the titanic plane's drawbacks have restricted market growth. …