Ukrainian carrier SkyUp Airlines had big plans for 2022. It wanted to expand its fleet to 22 Boeing 737NG aircraft and carry 3 million passengers.  

“Frankly, we wanted 4 million passengers,” flight administration manager Yevhenii Hnes said at the Pilot Expo in Berlin, Germany on May 6, 2022. The airline carried just over 2.5 million passengers in 2021 with its fleet of 15 aircraft. 

But in February, that all changed. With war imminent, insurers demanded that SkyUp move its fleet out of Ukraine. SkyUp therefore moved its fleet, basing aircraft overnight in Egypt, Moldova, Romania and Bulgaria. Just one of its 15 B737s remained in Kyiv.  

When Russia invaded on February 24, the situation changed dramatically.   

Initially, SkyUp was involved in bringing Ukrainians home from holiday destinations such as Egypt or the UAE. Because Ukrainian airspace was closed to commercial aircraft, the airline used its aircraft to get passengers to neighboring countries, from where they could use transport to return to Ukraine, Hnes explained to AeroTime.  

With men required to fight, SkyUp had to get special permission for its pilots to carry out flights. The company also had to locate its staff, some of whom were in basements or bomb shelters, and provide laptops and phones to ensure everyone could stay in touch and keep operations going.  

In March, SkyUp carried out 21 evacuation flights from Chisinau, Moldova to Tel Aviv. The airline not only transported 2,835 refugees but also 124 much loved pets. Those numbers increased further in April, with SkyUp carrying out 73 flights, transporting just under 6,000 passengers. 

“The management of the company didn't give up,” Hnes explained. “They tried to look for solutions, any opportunity to be involved, for work, for our planes to fly.”  

Now SkyUp is seeking to lease out its fleet to other airlines, having published an open letter to fellow carriers at the end of March. There’s a condition - SkyUp will not fly to Russia, Belarus or other conflict zones.   

“We've managed to find dry lease agreements for some of our fleet,” Hnes said. “Now we have several agreements and we’re trying to find some more work for the rest of the planes.” 

In the open letter to airlines, SkyUp states that by continuing operations, it is contributing to the defense of Ukraine by helping ensure economic stability. 

“It’s our work and we defend our Ukraine how we can,” Hnes said. 

The SkyUp manager, who is currently based in France, is grateful for the different types of support that he, his colleagues and fellow Ukrainians have received. 

“Support takes different forms. Maybe it’s somebody just asking how we are,” Hnes said. He says that for example, some hotels offered pilots who were away from home free accommodation when war broke out. “It’s something little, but it's very important for us.”  

For Hnes, commercial aviation is a sign of hope.  

“When you see airplanes in the sky, you know that everything is going to be ok. In Ukrainian airspace, there are only helicopters and fighter jets. When I came to Europe, I was really happy to see the airplanes in the sky.” 

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Updated on May 10, 2022 with clarification on Russian and Belarus flights