by SUE, MAKE UP
Do Russian airlines still have a safety problem?
Such is the concern surrounding flight safety in Russia that, Airline Ratings, one of the world’s leading authorities on measuring airline safety, automatically marks a carrier down if they use only Russian-built aircraft.
Though standards have certainly improved in the vast country a reputation forged during the Soviet era of overworked crew, under-maintained planes and extreme weather conditions has proved difficult to shake.
Last weekend’s crash of a Saratov Airlines Antonov An-148 ended a record number of days without a fatal crash involving a jet plane and brought the total number of civil airliner accidents by Russian carriers to 519, with 8,424 fatalities. Only the US, a country that operates around 13 times more flights than Russia each year, has had more (with 821 crashes and 10,714 fatalities).
The bulk of Russia’s air crash history follows closely the growth of its once sole carrier, Aeroflot, of which Saratov Airlines used to be a part until the state airline’s break up following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Aeroflot, today a safe, modernised airline, used to suffer a tremendous number of crashes. In 1973 alone, it wa involved in 27 accidents in which a total of 780 people lost their lives, according to the Aviation Safety Network, making up nearly half of all worldwide air crash deaths for the year. In 1974, there were another 21 accidents, while in 1975 the figure fell to 19. But in 1976, there were 33. Between 1946 and 1989, Aeroflot was involved in 721 accidents.
The nature of some of the crashes gave the international community little confidence in the Russian airline. In the Nineties, Russian aircrews often allowed extra standing passengers on board in exchange for bribes in hard currency. Some crashes were attributed to the excess weight carried by the aircraft.
In one case in 1994, a pilot allowed his young son to sit at the flight controls. The boy accidentally switched off the automatic pilot, causing the Aeroflot plane travelling from Moscow to Hong Kong to nosedive into the ground, killing 75 people.
More Aeroflot passengers (8,231) have died in crashes than any other airlines, by a long shot, with Air France in second, with 1,783. But this is in part because the staggering former size of the carrier.
During the Cold War, Aeroflot was responsible for flying the entire length and breadth of the entire Soviet Union, carrying 100 million passengers in 1976 - more than the likes of EasyJet or BA carry today.
However, the airline’s fleet back then featured ageing planes, and those with less-than glowing safety records.
In 2013, AirlineRatings.com released a list of the 10 least safe aircraft models. Topping the chart was the Czech LET410, introduced in 1970, but five Russian aircraft were also present, including a staple of Aeroflot’s Cold War fleet – the Tupolev Tu-154. Wikipedia lists more than 50 major incidents involving this model, eight involving Aeroflot, and 39 of which resulted in the loss of lives.
After the break up of the Soviet Union, it was not Aeroflot but its offspring, sometimes referred to as Babyflots, that came under more scrutiny.
At one point there were some 800 airlines - Kemerovo Aviation Enterprise, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky Air Enterprise and Voronezhavia, to name a few - that had once been part of Aeroflot.
In 1994, so poor was the safety record of some of these airlines that the International Air Transport Association advised against all air travel in the Soviet Union, instead recommending getting about by train.
AirSafe, another aviation monitor, has its own page dedicated to the accidents of former Soviet airlines, starting in 1990.
The 41-strong list - that does not include the weekend’s crash - counts among its entries the crash of a Cheremshanka Airlines Yak 40 in 1994, when poor weather at Vanavara forced the crew to divert to an alternative airport, but the plane ran out of fuel and had to make a crash landing, killing all on board.
It also includes the crash into the Volga of a Yak 42 carrying the staff and players from the professional Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey team. Only one of the eight crew and 37 passengers survived. The list makes for desperate reading.
By 2000, scores of Babyflots had gone out of business, some succumbing to financial difficulties, others shut down due to their poor safety records. It was then that the Russian government began to crack down on licensing and certification in an attempt to improve safety standards.
Why did the airlines fly such old planes?
One of the reasons so many Russian airlines operated Russian aircraft deemed to be involved in more frequent crashes was the collapse of the country’s aircraft manufacturing industry.
As the aircraft these airlines relied upon become rarer, so too did the parts needed for routine maintenance, making it harder to service a broken Antonov or Ilyushin. Some mechanics resorted to 「aviacannibalism」, breaking down planes to source parts for other planes.
What followed was the work of President Putin, whose protectionist policy hiked tariffs on foreign jets, such as Boeing and Airbus, before creating a state-controlled manufacturer, the United Aircraft Corp. He also publicly demanded that Aeroflot purchase only domestic aircraft.
But when the production levels proved to be too slow, Russian airlines relied more and more on the old aircraft they had been using for decades.
Are Russian airlines safer today?
Aeroflot eventually replaced its Soviet-era aircraft with Western-built jets, introducing the Airbus A310 first, and then the A350s and A330s it operates today. Today it flies no Antonov, Ilyushin or Tupolev models, and operates a number of Boeing aircraft too, including the new 787 Dreamliner.
It also made a strenuous effort to redefine itself as a modern and reliable airline, hiring two British rebranding consultants to kick-start the process. In 2006, Aeroflot became the 10th airline to join the SkyTeam group, which counts among its members Delta, KLM and Air France, becoming the first former Soviet carrier to do so.
In 2013, Aeroflot became the official carrier of Manchester United, raising its profile around the world.
A 2015 assessment of the world’s aviation infrastructure by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) found that Russia met or was close to meeting global averages in the 「effective implementation」 of a number of categories, including airworthiness, accident investigation and licensing. It actually excelled in accident investigation.
Meanwhile, the quality of some other former Soviet countries remains questionable.
For example, the EU bans all airlines from Kyrgyzstan from operating in the skies above Europe, owing to a failure to meet set safety standards.
- 2018-02-12 23:12:30