Fact check: will Antonov Airlines abandon Ukraine for Germany?
Antonov Airlines is without a doubt one of the best-known Ukrainian air carriers, and possibly the most beloved. The airline specializes in the transportation of heavy cargo and operates a fleet of some of the largest and most unique aircraft in the world.
For a long time, it owned the world’s only Antonov An-225 Mriya – the heaviest cargo aircraft on the planet, which had its hangar at the company’s base in Hostomel airport (HML), colloquially known as Antonov airport.
However, the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, changed that. The airport became a site of heavy fighting, as Russian forces tried to secure it as an bridgehead for further attacks on the Ukrainian capital Kyiv. The site changed hands numerous times and was heavily bombarded in the process.
Russian forces finally retreated from the airport in the last days of March. On April 1, the first high-quality videos of the destruction emerged: Mriya and numerous other aircraft perished in the fighting, Antonov’s offices were burned, and barely any building in the vicinity was left intact.
Based on these news, in the first part of May 2022, numerous reports surfaced claiming that Antonov was abandoning Hostomel. Supposedly, the airline was going to relocate to Leipzig, establishing a base there. The claim was followed up by speculation on how many new buildings Antonov will need there, and how the company is going to transfer its heavy equipment. However, are these claims true?
Strictly speaking, they have a kernel of truth in them. But that kernel was so heavily distorted through misinterpretation, mistranslation and speculation, that the claim as a whole might as well be considered false.
The Leipzig part
The main reason why Antonov can not move their base to Leipzig (LEJ) is that the base is already there.
It was opened in 2007, and at the time was Antonov’s third base after Hostomel and Ulyanovsk. Since then, two Antonov’s An-124s were kept at LEJ on standby, as a part of NATO’s Strategic Airlift International Solution (SALIS) program.
On January 26, 2022 – when the threat of Russian invasion loomed large – NATO Support and Procurement Agency offered Antonov to evacuate their aircraft there. This information was revealed by Dmytro Antonov, the chief pilot of the airline, in a video posted on March 18, 2022. Although the date was not independently confirmed, the role of Leipzig was.
The evacuation started on February 23, and three of the company’s An-124 freighters were moved to Germany, in addition to the two that were already there. Most of the management of the company relocated too. The last fact – as well as the fact that Antonov’s most prized possession, the An-225 – stayed at Hostomel, resulted in a scandal that shook the company to its core.
Since then, most of the operational aircraft of the company remained at and are operated from LEJ. The airport was acting as the company’s de facto main base, replacing Hostomel during its occupation by Russian forces, and continued to do so as this article was published.
Were there any changes in this status? No. All the articles that talk about Antonov moving to Leipzig use one source: Worldwide Project Consortium conference in Vienna, Austria, where Antonov spokesperson had a presentation.
The exact quote is hard to find, but some reports seem accurate enough. The company simply said that they are going to continue operating from Leipzig, and in order to do so, they need to move some equipment – such as spare engines and parts. The spokesperson phrased that as “transferring a full-scale base”, but the word “base” was, most likely, used to refer to some of the company’s material possessions, and not the status of an operational center.
Why? For one, the operational center was already there since late February. And Antonov’s base was there since 2007. But “Antonov Airlines is increasing its presence at Leipzig, Germany” is not an attractive headline.
The Hostomel part
But what about Hostomel? Most of the articles on the matter claim that the airline is going to abandon the airport, as the damage is too severe.
Indeed, the videos and the satellite photos show dozens of gaping holes in the airport’s hangars, and although their roofs still hold, operating from there is going to be dangerous. The airport’s runway is damaged as well, and the airline’s offices are completely destroyed: the Russian troops used them as barracks, looting everything valuable and burning the rest.
Many of the airline’s aircraft suffered similar fate, with one An-74 and one An-26 destroyed, and many others – including one An-124 – damaged.
However, the company never expressed the intention to abandon the airport. On the contrary, the works to restore it have already started.
In an exclusive interview soon to be published on AeroTime the chief pilot Dmytro Antonov explained that the company has already nearly completed demining and cleanup operations, and restoration of one of the hangars is about to start.
As for moving the operational center back, that is going to be a bit more difficult, which is precisely the reason why Antonov is strengthening its presence at Leipzig. However, the presence is temporary.
“We are actively working on it,” Dmytro Antonov explained to AeroTime. “Some documents were destroyed, although some of them can still be found. We have one advantage though. We belong to the company which manufactures our aircraft. This situation helps us a lot. Also, thankfully, we live in a modern world. A lot of information was digitized and stored away from Hostomel. So, restoration is possible and it is already going on. Everything is going to be restored, and we are going to return to our regular work. Right now we are in a transitional state.”
The pilot also confirmed that the company is working on a restoration project which envisions several expansions at Hostomel, including a possible passenger terminal. Furthermore, two An-124s are still there, one of them heavily damaged, and another one – partially disassembled. According to Dmytro, both of them are likely going to be restored eventually, and for that, the company is going to need a working base.
So, to sum up: no, Antonov is not going to abandon Hostomel for Leipzig. The base at Leipzig has been there for a long time, and is only an interim solution; meanwhile, the company has big plans for Hostomel, and has already started repairing it.
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