From Soviet Startup To Worldwide Carrier: Inside Aeroflot’s History

There are not many airlines that are true examples of flag carriers as much as Aeroflot. The Moscow, Russia-headquartered airline has a history that traces back nearly a century. Today, the operator flies a mix of Russian, Airbus, and Boeing aircraft to make up a fleet of over 190 planes. Connecting passengers across Russia and the globe to nearly 150 destinations, Aeroflot is a national entity with its mainline, Aurora, Pobeda, and Rossiya departments.

Tupolev Tu-144
Aeroflot has seen it all over the years. Photo: Getty Images

Operating civil, governmental, cargo, medical, arctic exploration, and crop dusting flights, Aeroflot has done it all in its rich history that has spanned nearly ten decades. The airline has transitioned from what was viewed as a military to an international powerhouse and has introduced many of the most experimental aircraft in aviation history. The carrier was a crucial asset during the peak of Soviet aviation, and it was reborn with the birth of the Russian Federation in 1991. Now, it is a major global airline that flies to more than 50 countries.

Local services

Aeroflot wasn’t the first civil aviation outfit in the Soviet Union. However, it was the airline that catalyzed its growth. In March 1923, Soviet officials founded the Volunteer Association of the Aerial Fleet, which was also known as Dobrolet. This became the country’s first significant civil air organization and entered regular air service with Junkers F-13s between Nizhny Novgorod and Moscow.

Those traveling on these flights witnessed tough conditions, such as frosty weather and disturbing engine noise. Nonetheless, the company managed to expand, spreading to remote eastern regions such as Siberia and Outer Mongolia.

However, the strict communist Soviet government wasn’t keen on having such large firms having this type of presence. As a result, in October 1930, officials combined the Main Administration of the Civil Air Fleet into one state-owned outfit, which would go o to be called Aeroflot.

Mail and cargo were the focus points of Aeroflot during the 1930s. Interestingly, it surpassed the United States in regard to air freight by volume. Meanwhile, it was primarily government and military personnel that filled the cabin. During this period, the goal of civil aviation was to connect remote regions rather than an ongoing air travel solution.

Despite there being 150 airports to fly out of, these sites were basic airfields with unpaved runways. Additionally, Aeroflot was still seen as a reserve for the Air Force’s Military Transport Aviation.

The jet age

After the fallout of World War II, Aeroflot became dissatisfied with piston-engine aircraft. So, it turned to manufacturing powerhouse Tupolev for a modern answer. Subsequently, the Tu-104 was produced, pipping key names such as Douglas and Boeing to build the second jetliner to enter commercial service.

Tupolev TU-104
During the times of the Soviet Union, there were several safety concerns for Aeroflot, with over 100 accidents occurring during this period. Photo: Getty Images

It was Aeroflot that introduced the Tu-104, doing so on September 15th, 1956. The first scheduled service was to Irkutsk from Moscow before Prague joined the fold to open up international flights with the type. The airline used the plane to replace the Ilyushin Il-14. Aeroflot would also go on to deploy the plane’s successor, the Tu-124, on domestic routes.

Aeroflot tried its hand at numerous Soviet jets during the growth years of jet aviation, debuting several influential aircraft, such as the Yakolev Yak-40 trijet, which conducted its first flight on October 21st, 1966. Overall, the airline combined well with these different jets for new passenger segments to emerge, allowing civil aviation to develop further thanks to quicker travel and reduced prices.

During the 1960s, Moscow had four airports that were linked to over 200 cities. Aeroflot now had a robust presence in several Soviet communities.

The carrier wasn’t done pioneering revolutionary jets. On December 26th, 1975, it introduced the Tu-144 on its mail operations. This supersonic airliner conducted its first flight seven years earlier, on December 31st, 1968, two months before the Concorde. Aeroflot introduced the plane on a passenger route between Moscow and Almaty in 1977 but decided to ground the type the following year amid a series of tragic incidents with the plane’s program.

By the time 1976 was over, Aeroflot had transported 100 million customers since its founding. Photo: Getty Images

Post-Soviet era

International operations were hindered during much of the 1980s as the United States government revoked its license in 1983 amid the tensions of the Cold War. Despite the relaxed global climate that the 1990s brought, the dissolution of the Soviet Union introduced considerable shifts for Aeroflot. The airline was divided into approximately 300 regional outfits, giving birth to several carriers such as Uzbekistan Airlines.

Nonetheless, it was a fresh start for Aeroflot as it was now a joint-stock company. Western aircraft were introduced into what was now the flag carrier of Russia’s fleet. The likes of the Airbus A310, Boeing 737, Boeing 767, and Boeing 777 joined the fold in the 1990s. The DC-10 was even part of the picture for cargo operations.

Passenger numbers were on the rise. For instance, in September 1994, Aeroflot transported 569,300 passengers, up against the previous year by 15.2%. Altogether, the renewed airline showed its maturation heading into the new century with the launch of its Bonus Programme for frequent flyers in 1999.

The new millennium kicked off with a bang, with Aeroflot carrying over five million passengers and over 100,000 tons of mail and cargo. The noughties would prove to be a pivotal decade for the airline, marked by its SkyTeam alliance membership in 2006.

2010 brought another major progression. Authorities decided that regional airlines should be consolidated with Aeroflot. As a result, a massive major occurred in November 2011. In this same year, the airline received its first Sukhoi SuperJet 100 type, of which it now has 16 units.

Aeroflot Sukhoi Superjet
Today, Aeroflot operates a fleet mix of A320, A321, A330, 737, 777, and SSJ 100 jets. Photo: Getty Images

Get your boarding pass to the flight of the year. The Future Flying Forum is taking off soon!

Recent transitions

In February 2020, Aeroflot received its first Airbus A350, which will be a significant asset in long-haul operations in this next chapter. Yet, homegrown aircraft will continue to be a core feature, with the likes of the MC-21 set to join the airline to handle domestic operations later on this decade. Aeroflot is the launch customer of this Russian “wide-cabin” narrowbody.

Domestic operations have always played an important role in Aeroflot’s operations. It was this market that managed to sustain the bulk of passenger activity during the peak of the pandemic. So, despite being an international figure, the airline has not forgotten its roots as a national entity.

What are your thoughts about Aeroflot’s operations over the years? What do you make of the history of the airline? Let us know what you think of the carrier and its story in the comment section.