Kremlin struggles to respond to plane crashes

AP News
Posted: Sep 16, 2011 8:17 AM
Kremlin struggles to respond to plane crashes

The crash of an aging Russian jet last week that killed 44 people, including an entire professional hockey team, was among a string of recent deadly crashes in Russia that have scared the public and prompted the president to suggest replacing all Soviet-era aircraft with Western-made planes.

But industry experts say that the air disasters plaguing Russia are rooted not simply in the planes' age, but in a myriad of other problems, including poor crew training, crumbling airports, lax government controls and widespread neglect of safety in the pursuit of profits.

"It's like an ax hanging over the head of each of us," said Oleg Smirnov, a highly decorated pilot who served as deputy civil aviation minister during Soviet times.

He and other experts warn there is no quick remedy for the industry's woes _ exacerbated by government inefficiency and corruption. They blame state regulators for turning a blind eye to aviation problems and failing to establish proper control over flight safety.

Veteran pilots insist aircraft like the Yak-42 that crashed last week, the Tu-134 that went down in June _ killing 47 people _ and the An-24 that crash-landed on the Ob River in July and killed seven, are solid designs that are safe to fly despite their age if they are operated properly.

An official panel conducting the probe into the Yak-42 crash hasn't yet named the cause, but has said it has found no evidence of equipment failure. However, two other such jets belonging to the owner of the crashed plane were grounded after a safety watchdog found that some engine components had exceeded their service time.

While most pilots and industry experts describe the Soviet-era planes as outdated but rugged and reliable, some say that the airlines have struggled to keep them airworthy.

"The collapse of aircraft components production has created a major problem," Alexander Akimenkov, a veteran test pilot who has flown 80 types of Russian and Western planes, told The Associated Press.

Akimenkov said the owners of Soviet-made planes have had to rummage around the country for spare parts to keep them flying. The shortage of spare parts has spawned the use of plane components from old depots, which sometimes lack proper service certificates, as well as recycled components.

The government has done little to strengthen air safety. Russia has four government agencies overseeing aviation, but their functions are vaguely defined and often duplicate one another.

"There is an immediate need for a single government agency in charge of aviation," said veteran pilot Vladimir Gerasimov, who blamed authorities for failing to make safety the top priority. He argued that loose regulations contributed to some of the recent crashes by permitting pilots to perform risky landing maneuvers.

Gerasimov said that greed prevails over safety at some Russian carriers, whose management encourages crews to save fuel no matter what. That often prompts pilots to make risky decisions like landing in bad weather instead of flying to another airport out of fear of losing their pay.

"Pilots act under pressure of possible sanctions for making the right decisions," Gerasimov told The Associated Press.

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev responded to the latest crash by ordering officials to shut most of the nation's 130 carriers, saying small airlines tend to cut corners on safety. He also said the government may end attempts to bail out struggling national aircraft makers and buy more foreign planes. "The value of human life must prevail over all other considerations, such as support for local producers," Medvedev said.

Many industry insiders warn, however, that replacing the old planes won't solve the industry's problems because Western aircraft require the modern infrastructure that Russia lacks.

"The president suggests using Western planes, but in that case we would also need to have Western infrastructure," said Akimenkov, the veteran test pilot.

Akimenkov, who tested the performance of several Soviet-designed planes in extreme conditions, said that Western planes generally require more careful maintenance and aren't always fit for use at primitive airports and in the rugged conditions of Russia's Far North.

The nation's airports have remained in state hands, and most of them continue to rely on outdated navigation and communications equipment and are in dire need of repairs.

While June's Tu-134 crash in the northwestern city of Petrozavodsk has been blamed on the pilot, who might have mistaken a nearby highway for the runway while trying to land in deep fog, experts said the antiquated condition of the local airport contributed to the disaster.

Only three airports in the country are equipped with state-of-the art automatic landing systems, while all others continue to rely on old navigation equipment, which puts more pressure on the crews when they land at night or in bad weather, raising the likelihood of pilot error.

Poland said that insufficient lighting at an airport in Smolensk in western Russia was among the factors that contributed to the April 2010 crash of a Soviet-made Tu-154 that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 95 other people.

The largest airlines, including the national flag carrier Aeroflot, already have withdrawn Soviet-era planes from service and rely almost entirely on Boeings and Airbuses, which burn less fuel and meet European requirements for noise and emissions. Imported planes accounted for 83 percent of passengers carried by Russian airlines last year, and the figure will likely reach 90 percent this year, Smirnov said.

But Boeings and Airbuses are used only on the busiest foreign and domestic flights, while hundreds of other routes across Russia's nine time zones are served by small regional carriers, most of which have only a handful of aging Soviet-era aircraft and simply can't afford Western planes.

Alexei Sinitsky, the editor of Air Transport Review monthly magazine, said that bigger carriers have shown no interest in serving smaller airports, which would require a big investment and wouldn't bring sizable returns. He argued that many smaller carriers have a good safety record and warned that Medvedev's orders would have "monstrous consequences for both Russia's aviation and for the population of remote regions."

Other experts also said that an attempt to quickly discard old aircraft and radically cut the number of carriers would paralyze air traffic across most of Russia.

"Aviation is what keeps our country together," said Smirnov, warning that air transport provides the only link to many areas of Siberia and the Far East. "Closing an airport means closing a city."