When Ukrainian startup airline SkyUp launched in 2018, few could suspect the challenges it would have to face over the span of fewer than five years.
If the pandemic proved to be the first serious test of the company’s resilience and adaptability, the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, was to have considerably more far-reaching consequences.
And yet, SkyUp has not just managed to pull through. After rebuilding its business operating out of foreign lands, the Ukrainian carrier is preparing to resume growth, and for the day circumstances allow it to return to its home country.
In an exclusive in-depth conversation with AeroTime, SkyUp’s CEO, Dmytro Seroukhov, reflected on eighteen months that have changed the history of Europe.
He shared details about the decisions that helped to save the airline just in time, and the way the SkyUp team has quickly adapted to the new operational environment in order to carry on, no matter what.
A return to the Ukrainian skies remains, of course, the ultimate wish for Seroukhov who shared with AeroTime some invaluable insights on what it takes to lead an airline in wartime.
SkyUp before the war
SkyUp, a private, family-owned airline, launched in 2018 as part of the UPfamily of brands, which also includes Join UP!, one of the country’s largest tour operators before the war.
At the time the Ukrainian air travel market was experiencing a period of growth and what originally began as a charter operator supporting the group’s tour operator soon evolved to become a fully-fledged low-cost airline with a scheduled flight program.
Soon after its launch, SkyUp became the second largest airline in the country and one of the fastest growing airlines in Europe, carrying more than 2.5 million passengers in 2022.
On the eve of the Russian invasion, SkyUp was operating a fleet of 15 Boeing 737 aircraft.
“We were the number two airline in Ukraine, just a few tens of thousands [of passengers] separating us from first place,” Seroukhov explained. “Had the war not started we are sure we would have been number one by the end of 2022.”
Plans had been afoot to reach a fleet of 22 aircraft by summer 2022 and to cover a network of 120 destinations.
Surviving a succession of enormous shocks in such a short history has given SkyUp a resilience that is unparalleled in the airline industry.
“Each year we’ve had to face new challenges. Two of them were massive: COVID, then the war,” Seroukhov said. “Which other airline in the world has faced, in a span of five years, such huge turbulence? I think nobody!”
These circumstances have made the airline resistant. “We can say we are ‘sustainable,’ not in terms of emissions,” he added, “but in terms of how we managed all these troubles.”
Saving the airline while under fire
But to be able to bounce back from adversity, first it was necessary to physically save the airline and make sure staff and aircraft were out of harm’s way.
While many other airlines found their aircraft stuck at Ukrainian airports when the country’s airspace closed, SkyUp managed to get its fleet out of the country before the first missiles were fired.
As soon as talk of hostilities heated up in late 2021 and a Russian invasion started to look like a real possibility in early 2022, SkyUp’s team started to take precautions.
While continuing to service the Ukrainian market, SkyUp positioned its aircraft abroad, minimizing the chance of them becoming caught in line of fire if things went awry.
A case in point is one of its aircraft was actually en route to Ukraine when the first shots were fired but managed to turn around quickly.
“It was not a matter of luck. It was our decision,” Seroukhov affirmed.
Another key decision was to retain all of the airline’s staff even through the most uncertain moments at the start of the war.
From early in the conflict, SkyUp’s fleet took an active role in relief operations, flying
Ukrainian refugees elsewhere and carrying Ukraine-bound cargo to airports in neighboring countries. By June 2022, the whole fleet was engaged in those missions.
As a third country operator within the EU, SkyUp found itself restricted to ACMI operations when the war began, supplying aircraft and crews via wet lease to other airlines.
At the time, SkyUp’s team knew little about the ACMI market.
“It was something totally new to us,” Seroukhov admitted. “We were not in this market. We didn’t know anything about this market, just a general idea of how it works.”
However, there was no other choice if he wanted to keep the airline running and, by the end of May 2022, the whole fleet was engaged in this activity.
First, the airline had to overcome the reluctance of European regulators.
“Their first words were, ‘You are from Ukraine? It’s impossible to operate, you cannot operate’,” Seroukhov revealed, adding that the airline worked to convince regulators that it was ready.
SkyUp underwent some 20 different inspections, including from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), in order to secure the authorizations that would allow it to continue operating out of airports within the European Union (EU).
Although some operational restrictions remain in place, some EU countries, such as the Baltics, Poland, and Romania, granted SkyUp permission to operate charter flights, mainly to leisure destinations in the Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Middle East.
SkyUp has since become an EU carrier, obtaining a Maltese Air Operator Certificate (AOC) in May 2023.
Becoming an EU airline
An aircraft was swiftly transferred to the new registry, but it is likely that several more will follow.
“The plan is very simple. We intend to develop it,” Seroukhov said, referring to the new AOC.
Interestingly, Seroukhov remarked that the growth of its Malta-registered fleet could come through organic growth rather than the transfer of aircraft from the current Ukrainian-registered fleet.
He said: “I am not thinking about transfers, I am thinking about new deliveries.”
SkyUp still has Boeing 737 MAX on order. Their delivery was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but they are still in the books.
Despite reactivating the delivery of the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft, Seroukhov did not rule out taking in other types of aircraft when the time comes to expand SkyUp’s fleet again.
Relaunching scheduled flights
The next step in SkyUp’s growth will be the launch of regular flights.
“I can say that we plan to start regular flights from next April  and that we plan to open sales by Autumn ,” Seroukhov said.
While Seroukhov did not disclose which markets SkyUp is looking at, he remarked that “the team is working”.
“We are cooking,” he added, jokingly.
As of summer 2023, Seroukhov explained, more than 70% of SkyUp’s operations are in Europe. Though the airline operates a fair share of flights to destinations in North Africa or the Middle East, these often involve European routes.
However, this did not prevent two of SkyUp’s aircraft, with their respective crews, from finding themselves in the middle of yet another war, this time in Sudan. In April 2023, two SkyUp Boeing 737 aircraft were destroyed on the ground at Khartoum International Airport (KRT), as government forces and rebel militias fought for the control of the strategic facility.
Once again, Seroukhov and his team had to act fast to ensure the safety of the airline’s staff, this time in a far more distant land.
“Those days they were stuck in Sudan, we didn’t sleep even one night worrying about them,” he explained, before thanking the people and organizations that helped the airline to get the crew out of the embattled African country.
A decentralized structure
The war in Ukraine also led to a thorough reorganization of the way SkyUp worked internally.
A significant part of the airline’s operations is now being conducted remotely, with the team scattered through various locations.
“Challenge accepted!” Seroukhov remarked about the change. “This is our way of life.” However, he also admitted that the circumstances have taken a toll on the workforce.
Seroukhov explained that as soon as the war started many people throughout the international aviation community reached out to the SkyUp team to express their support and help, something he is extremely thankful for.
Despite everything the airline has been through over the past year-and-a-half, Seroukhov is looking to the future with optimism, with the conviction that the darkest moments have already been left behind.
It is now time for SkyUp to look ahead and continue developing its business as an active member of the European airline community, and one that is already operationally profitable today.
Operational efficiency is one of the tenets of SkyUp’s operations and Seroukhov can take pride in some rather impressive metrics.
For example, he highlighted that before the war SkyUp was one of the airlines in Europe with the highest aircraft utilization rates, with its aircraft flying an average of 13.3 hours per day.
Seroukhov explained how it was not unusual to see SkyUp’s aircraft operating pretty much around the clock.
“We know how to fly 18 or 19 hours per day,” he proudly revealed. “And we are getting very close to these figures this summer season.”
Seroukhov remarked how this intensity has somehow become one of the airline’s defining traits.
“It’s our style. We don’t know how to fly just 300 hours [per aircraft – editor’s note] per month”, he said, before adding that while the flying program for next season is not yet known, it will not be less than 400 hours per aircraft and per month.
Preparing for growth
Seroukhov confirmed that the fleet will increase in 2024, from its current fleet of 10 aircraft. As of July 2023, SkyUp operates eight B737-800 and two B737-700.
With more than half of the fleet’s capacity already sold for next winter, Seroukhov commented on his vision of a bright future for SkyUp.
Besides the war, Seroukhov is concerned about what he perceives as a “lack of capacity”, both for the company and the airline industry, something that may hamper growth plans for SkyUp.
The new European dimension of SkyUp’s operation has not prevented Seroukhov from keeping an eye on his own country. SkyUp wants to be the first in the Ukrainian market the moment the war ends and Seroukhov is clear that this would not be at the expense of its new European operation, but by adding new capacity.
“Imagine, one day, tomorrow or after tomorrow, as soon as possible, the war will be finished and we need to be the first in Ukraine, and we will be. Because we are a Ukrainian carrier,” Seroukhov said.