Safe class and crash class

Most countries have two classes of air travel: economy class and business class.

Russia has two categories: safe class and crash class.

Today, Russia mulls lessons learned from last week’s crash that killed 43 hockey players and coaches from Yaroslavl. It is the worst sports aviation disaster worldwide in a generation.

On an absolute level, Russia now has the world’s worse air safety record, topping the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). This year, seven airplane crashes have killed 121 people in Russia, In the Congo, three crashes this year have killed 106 people. However, Russia has a far larger volume of air passengers than the Congo – about 57 million this year.

But the air crash rate for Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States is now 7.5 crashes per 1 million flights, or three times the world average, according to the International Air Transport Association.

Burrow down into the statistics, and you will see a two class system emerge. Last year and so far this year, all of Russia’s fatal crashes have been of Soviet-era passenger aircraft. Take Soviet planes out of the equation, and Russia’s commercial air accident rate for the last two years falls to zero.

Russia today has 130 airlines. The top 10 carry 85 percent of passengers, overwhelmingly on Westernmade Boeings and Airbuses.

Looking only at Russia’s top 10 airlines, Russia’s air accident rate again falls to zero. The challenge for Russia is to supply safe air service to the largest country in the world.

After a two decade horseshoe dip, air passenger traffic in Russia is finally to returning to the levels of the last days of the Soviet Union. This year, air tickets sold represent the equivalent of 40 percent of Russia’s population. Russia’s 120 small airlines provide services to smaller cities and regions, areas that would literally be marooned in this continent of forest and snow.

World class safety rules and inspections that are now the norms in Moscow and St. Petersburg often do not reach regional airports and airlines.

In addition, smaller airlines are often run by post-Soviet entrepreneurs who take shortcuts on safety to maximize profits. Tales abound of small air companies that skimp on pilot pay and training and that fine pilots for cancelling flights, for using too much fuel, or for not landing on the first try.

This breed of air company executive flies planes until they crash. I saw the results of this kind of entrepreneur when I worked in Zaire.

The edges of landing strips across Central Africa are littered with carcasses of planes that were flown until the ends of their useful lives.

After accidents in Russia, companies routinely claim ‘pilot error.’ (Blaming the dead is fashionable in Moscow this season, with victims ranging from an obstetrician killed by a speeding VIP car to Sergei Magnitsky, the whistle blowing lawyer who died in prison.) In the Yaroslavl case, this argument may be hard to make by Yak Service, the operator of the Yak-42 that crashed with Yaroslavl’s Lokomotiv hockey team. The captain had 1,500 hours of Yak- 42 flight experience. Yak-42s have a seating occupancy of 120. But this flight carried only 42 passengers.

But, even with only one third its passenger load capacity, a three kilometer runway, and three working engines, the aging Yak was unable to gain altitude. After the end of the runway, it fatally clipped a radio navigation beacon.

The 18-year-old plane was scheduled for “heavy repairs” later this year, according to Igor Levitin, Russia’s Transportation Minister. In 2009, the European Aviation Safety Agency ranked Yak Service as the least safe of 35 Russian airlines flying to Europe. That ranking prompted the EU to ban the company from flying to Europe.

To turn around Russia’s air safety picture, President Medvedev has ordered bureaucrats to speed up existing plans to cut the number of Russia’s airlines. Recognizing that Russia’s aircraft industry is years away from meeting airplane demand, he is cutting incentives for Russian companies to buy Russianmade planes. With Russian air travel increasing by 11 percent this year, Boeing estimates that Russia and the countries of the former Soviet Union will buy 1,080 passenger aircraft over the next 20 years.

Oddly, as 100,000 people in Yaroslavl braved heavy rain Saturday to honor their hockey heroes, some anger was directed at Russia’s President. In a strange intersection of politics and sport, the coffins of 19 players were placed on Lokomotiv’s Arena 2000 rink, a space where only two days earlier Mr. Medevedev had presided over his annual international political conference.

Because of the conference, Lokomotiv was forced to charter a plane to play its season opener out of town, in Minsk. On the Russian blogosphere, some fans are speculating that confusion at the regional airport on the first day of the conference, traditionally the airport’s busiest day of the year, somehow contributed to the fatal crash.

In a nation where a lack of government transparency allows conspiracy theories to flourish, this question mark is bound to hang in the air for years to come.

James Brooke is the Moscow bureau chief for Voice of America

Read other articles of the print issue “The Moscow News #70”

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