South Africa has been talking to Russia's Nordwind Airlines (N4, Moscow Sheremetyevo) about launching direct flights between Moscow Sheremetyevo and Johannesburg O.R. Tambo, even though the carrier is subject to US and European sanctions invoked due to Russia's war on Ukraine, meaning it cannot legally fly to South Africa under international aviation safety regulations.

South Africa's ambassador to Russia, Mzuvukile Jeff Maqetuka, told the Russian state-owned newswire Sputnik that Pretoria was waiting for the airline's decision. The aim is to launch four non-stop flights a week, including one weekly to Cape Town, to boost Russian tourism, Maqetuka said.

"Our transport department discussed Aeroflot flights with the Russian transport ministry, then we were informed that it had been decided that it would be Nordwind," he said.

Nordwind's management did not respond to numerous emailed requests for confirmation. Still, on phoning, a company employee in Moscow confirmed that flights to South Africa were in the pipeline but could give no further details.

South Africa's International Air Services Council confirmed to ch-aviation that it had not yet received an application for a foreign operator's permit (FOP) from Nordwind.

Plans to establish direct flights to South Africa before the 2023 Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg in late July were also disclosed by Oleg Ozerov, Russia's ambassador-at-large and head of the Russia-Africa partnership forum, Sputnik and fellow Russian news agency TASS both reported.

South Africa and Russia have maintained close diplomatic relations based on the historical ties between the Soviet Union and South Africa's ruling African National Congress (ANC). Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov held talks with his South African counterpart Naledi Pandor in Pretoria this week about increased bilateral cooperation. Joint Russian, South African, and Chinese naval exercises are scheduled to take place in February off South Africa's East Coast, controversially coinciding with the first anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Safety rules

How South Africa's political stance on Russia will impact civil aviation safety rules remains to be seen. In line with stipulations by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), of which South Africa is a signatory, Nordwind or any other Russian operator will have to demonstrate to the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) that its aircraft are airworthy and being maintained to the latest service bulletins (SBs) issued by manufacturers - in Nordwind's case Airbus and Boeing - and mandatory airworthiness directives (ADs) published in this case by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

However, EU and US sanctions targeting Russia due to its invasion of Ukraine prohibit the export of aircraft and spare parts to Russian airlines and the provision of technical support, including maintenance data, air navigation database updates, flight training, and other safety-critical equipment. Nordwind is subject to the ban, meaning it does not have access to the latest maintenance revisions and, therefore, will not be allowed to fly to South Africa, a well-informed source at the regulator told ch-aviation.

Nordwind - which according to the ch-aviation fleets advanced module conducts long-haul flights with seized leased A330-200s, A330-300s, B777-200(ER)s, and B777-300(ER)s - operates in violation of the US and EU export bans to Russia of aircraft or spare parts. According to the US Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS), Nordwind's "violations have been significant, deliberate and covert". BIS has ordered companies and individuals in the US and abroad to "avoid dealing with Nordwind, in connection with export and re-export transactions involving items subject to the regulations and in connection with any other activity subject to the regulations." In December 2022, the BIS said that Nordwind continued to fly aircraft into Russia in violation of the US export ban, including flights from Hurghada and Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt, and Bokhtar, Tajikistan.

A Boeing spokesperson confirmed that the company in early 2022 had suspended providing parts, maintenance, and technical support for customers and maintenance service providers in Russia. "We continue to adhere to US sanctions and global laws and regulations."

An EASA spokesperson said the European regulator was "seriously concerned about the safety situation of the western-built fleet in Russia". "A significant number of western-built aircraft were operating in Russia at the time of the invasion of Ukraine, many of them owned by Western lessors and registered in Bermuda or Ireland. Many of those aircraft have been illegally seized by the Russian government, fully disregarding international provisions and prompting the reaction of ICAO and many contracting states." In light of the ban on access to spare parts and maintenance support, the EASA had "serious safety concerns on how those aircraft are being maintained and how the pilots and the engineers are trained". This lack of oversight prompted the agency to suspend all third-country operator (TCO) authorisations issued to Russian operators. Due to safety concerns, the European Commission has also included all Russian operators of western-built aircraft on its Air Safety List.