AirBridgeCargo Airlines is set to relaunch on 3 June, using two Ilyushin IL-96 freighters.

According to one source, the move has the financial support of Russia’s president Putin and at least one aircraft already has ABC livery, according to images released by the factory in Voronezh, Russia.

The four-engined Ilyushin 96-400T has a payload of 88,000kg or 194,006lbs, a total load volume of 580 cu metres and a maximum range of 5,500km. According to Air Charter Service, it is “a very capable and popular option”.

AirBridgeCargo’s existing fleet of 747s and a 777 are stored in Russia, as legal arguments continue with western lessors. ABC’s sister carrier, Volga-Dnepr Airlines, has continued to operate since Russia invaded Ukraine, although it can no longer fly to Europe or North America.

In the past week, Volga-Dnepr’s An-124s and Il-76s have flown to destinations including Turkey, India, Egypt, Vietnam and China, indicating likely markets for ABC’s new Russian fleet.

ABC, meanwhile, is racking up substantial bills in the western world. Canadian media has reported that a An-124 has amassed parking fees at Toronto Pearson Airport of about US$310,000 after a year.

Perhaps more significantly, a US court has ordered ABC to pay $100,000 a week, from 16 March, until it complies with a court order to return two engines and paperwork to lessors. It also must pay $75,000 in plaintiff legal costs.

ABC told the court it was stuck. It told the court the plaintiff, the lessor, “in an unabashed effort to take advantage of [the] defendant’s paralysed state, now seeks millions of dollars in penalties for defendant’s inevitable contempt of this court’s orders. The Court should not allow plaintiff to profit from defendant’s misfortune of being trapped in a web of political sanctions outside of their own control.”

It added: “While defendant does possess the original records, it is unable to send them to plaintiff without contravening Russian law. More specifically, [the Russian government] imposes a prohibition on the export of aircraft and aviation goods from Russia without a special authorisation from the Russian government. Despite defendant’s best efforts, it has been unable to obtain such special authorisation…”

The mounting fines and increasingly complex lessor court cases around the world indicate that Russian carriers’ ties with the west look severed. Which means their only option for survival is to operate within the Russian state, with the approval of the president.

It could be some time before, if ever, ABC is back in the western fold.

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