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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

BW Exposes the Horror of Flying Russian Style

Business Week magazine contains an article reviewing the increasingly terrifying prospect of boarding a commerical jet anywhere in Russia. As is often the case in Russia, the ultimate horror here is not even the sickening loss of life, but the even more sickening indifference to it on the part of both the government and the people. In Russia, individual human lives have lost all significance.

The Deadly Skies of Russia

Russia's air safety standards are in the spotlight after a spate of recent accidents due to dangerous airports, tired pilots, and old planes.

With trademark black humor, Russian pilots call the Irkutsk airport the "Siberian Bermuda Triangle."

The thick fog is ubiquitous; the slippery runways slope at odd angles; garages, sheds, and hangars sit precariously close by. Some superstitious locals also say the airport is cursed due to the presence nearby of a mass grave filled with the remains of victims of the Stalin-era terror. Whatever the cause - bad climate, poor infrastructure, or restless angry spirits - nearly one-fifth of the 26 major Russian airline accidents since the breakup of the USSR have occurred in Irkutsk.

Most recently, on 9 July, a Sibir Airlines Airbus A310 overshot a runway while landing, smashed through a concrete fence into nearby garages and burst into flames. Some 124 of the more than 200 passengers and crew on board were killed.Describing the accident as "ill fate," Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov told Transport Minister Igor Levitin to draft proposals to improve airport safety in Irkutsk.But while Irkutsk's airport is certainly one of Russia's biggest airline safety concerns, it is not the only one. Tragic incidents sometimes occur mid-flight, during what is normally the safest part of the trip.

The most recent such accident took place on 22 August, when a Pulkovo Airlines Tupolev Tu-154, en route from the Black Sea town of Anapa to St. Petersburg, crashed north of the Ukrainian city of Donetsk killing all 170 people on board.And while the Sibir and Pulkovo airlines disasters attracted international headlines, Russia experienced a series of smaller incidents this past summer that got less attention. On 10 July, just a day after the Irkutsk crash, another potential catastrophe was averted when another A310 was forced to make an emergency landing in Simferopol after a dangerously sharp drop in the oil level of one of its engines. On the same day, a Tu-134 Russian Navy plane was forced to land in the Crimea after one of its engines burst into flames.On 27 July two Russian military jets - a MiG-29 fighter and a Be-103 - crashed.

A day earlier, a Yak-26 aerobatic trainer crashed in the Razan region.So why do airlines suffer so many deadly crashes? Analysts cite a variety of reasons including ageing fleets, poorly trained and unqualified pilots, bad airport infrastructure, and corruption.


A technician who worked on the Airbus A310 that crashed in Irkutsk told the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda that the aircraft's thrust-reverse had malfunctioned prior to takeoff.According to Aleksandr Bocharov, spokesman for the Airbus office in Russia, an A310 "can operate" safely "for 25 years and a total flying time of 59,000 hours." Whether or not the A310 - which had undergone regular maintenance in Germany one year before the crash and was scheduled for maintenance in 88 days - had exceeded its recommended flying time, experts say this is a common problem for Russia's cash-strapped post-Soviet airline industry.

When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, so did the state airline Aeroflot, which budded off 500 smaller, regionally-based companies. The smaller of these had little choice but to stick with their ageing Soviet-era fleets. The larger ones could only afford to purchase older foreign aircraft.Eager to unload their older planes, foreign manufacturers offer aircraft to Russian companies on flexible and attractive conditions: easy credit, installment plans, large discounts, and leasing. Russian airlines tend to economize in procuring and maintaining their fleets at the expense of safety, an industry official said, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic.

One exception is the national carrier Aeroflot, which is planning to spend $3 billion for 22 long-haul aircraft. On 15 September, however, Aeroflot announced that it was indefinitely postponing a decision on whether to buy Dreamliners from the U.S. firm Boeing or A350s from its European rival Airbus. "The date of the new board meeting is not set yet.

The final decision is being put off," Aeroflot's Deputy Director General Lev Koshlyakov told Reuters.But even if all of Russia's airlines could afford to make such a purchase, it would not make the skies safer, according to experts. According to some estimates, 70 percent of Russian air crashes involve human error. Just as Russia's fleet of aircraft is ageing, so are its pilots - and there are few younger cadres to replace them.The average age of a Russian pilot is 42, which means that a significant number are over 50. Some medical experts have suggested that a significant number of Russia's older pilots should be grounded for health reasons.

According to the Russian Aviation Workers' Trade Union, airlines face a shortage of skilled pilots as the younger generation is not going into the profession due to low salaries. Moreover, Russia has just two schools training civilian pilots.Compounding these problems is the decrepit state of Russia's airports.

According to the air transport research organization Skytrax, Russia has three of the world's most dangerous airports: the infamous Irkutsk field, Adler, and Petropavlovsk Kamchatsky. In Adler, the airport for the Black Sea city of Sochi, aircraft must perform a complicated - and terrifying - loop maneuver in order to land on a small strip between the mountains and the sea. Moreover, the airport lacks standard radio and lighting equipment. In Petropavlovsk Kamchatsky on the mountainous Kamchatka peninsula, takeoffs and landings are complicated by extreme turbulence, high hills, and volcanoes.

Overall, 39 Russian airports are in need of emergency repairs on runways. Part of the problem is that runways and landing strips at Russian airports are constructed from concrete blocks. On older runways, the center of these blocks tend to sink and form a bowl that accumulates water, leading to hazardously slippery runways flooded with puddles.And then there is plain old fashioned crime and corruption. Police in Moscow, for example, recently caught workers at the Vnukovo Aircraft Repair Works using uncertified parts stolen from the Saturn plant in Rybinsk. Investigators later discovered that many of these faulty parts had been installed on aircraft engines.


Attempting to reassure the public, some Russian airline executives have suggested that the rise in accidents is not really a cause for concern. Russian authorities register many thousands of road accidents every year, they say. Accidents occur on the railroads, on boats, and at factories as well. This is the price people have to pay for the industrial revolution.

The Russian government was only slightly less cavalier. It promised to pay 100,000 rubles ($3,700) to victims' families in the A310 crash in Irkutsk, and 50,000 rubles to survivors. But despite mounting evidence that airlines' habit of buying second-hand aircraft from abroad is harming airline safety, Transport Minister Levitin said the government does not plan to initiate more comprehensive controls on the process.

"The mechanism works and we will not change it," he said, adding that the A310 that crashed in Irkutsk had been regularly maintained and passed all safety tests.But a looming lawsuit may cause the foreign companies supplying Russian airlines to exercise more caution.

The American law firm Speiser Krause has agreed to represent 27 families who lost relatives in the Irkutsk crash. The firm, which claims that a problem in the aircraft's reverse braking system caused the crash, is preparing to sue U.S. and British companies that manufactured parts for the A310 for $800,000 to $1.5 million in compensation per victim.

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