It’s a rhetoric churned out by every airline in the Western hemisphere….”Our No. 1 priority is towards safety. That of our passengers, and our crew“. And usually you would find that this rhetoric is never a differentiator amongst business or leisure travellers, because “safety” in the airline industry is an expected given. Most western air travellers are more concerned with seat pitch, in-flight entertainment and air-miles. However, it has now become one of the key differentiators among the Russian consumer.
Instead of deciding if they can afford to fly Business or Economy, they now make a distinction and decision based on “Safe” or “Un-safe”.
The press, who ordinarily loses interest in your typical Russian transport accident (the ferry accident on the Volga a few months ago, the repeated train crashes – one occurred only last week – and the ever increasing aviation incidents and accidents) have been like a dog with a bone since the latest accident involving a Yak-42 airplane that never got airborne, and the elite hockey team who all perished as a result of the accident. Not since the Munich air disaster in 1958 has the world seen a worst sports aviation disaster. The accident killed 44 hockey players and coaches from Yaroslavl. It is as though the public, whose penchant for travel abroad is on the rise, are suddenly acutely aware that next time it could be them.
Statistically, Russia now has the world’s worst air safety record, topping the Democratic Republic of Congo. A total of 121 people have been killed in seven crashes this year, whereas in the Congo, three crashes this year have killed 106 people. Mind you, Russia has a far larger volume of air passengers than the Congo – about 57 million this year. A figure which has led the government to mothball all Tu-134s, An-24s and Yak-40s by the end of the year, and following this disaster, the same fate probably also awaits the Yak-42.
The air crash rate for Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States is now 7.5 crashes per 1 million flights. According to IATA (International Air Transport Association), that’s three times the world average!
If you dig a little deeper into the statistics, a two class system begins to emerge. Last year and so far this year, all of Russia’s fatal crashes have been of Soviet-era passenger aircraft. But, if you take Soviet planes out of the equation, 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 Western made Boeing and Airbus aircraft. Looking only at Russia’s top 10 airlines, Russia’s air accident rate again falls to zero.
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 aviation industry is years away from meeting airplane demand, he is cutting incentives for Russian companies to buy Russian made 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, with 32 percent of this figure already in backlog orders for the next five years.
The need to replace Russia’s ageing fleet of Soviet-made aircraft has long been evident, but this latest crash, which sealed Russia’s title as the most dangerous place to fly in 2011, turns it into a pressing need.
As more and more Russian made planes are transferred to the scrapheap, the country is set to see a vast surge of foreign-made planes, partly spurred by a drop in import duties for increased capacity aircraft.
But cutting the number of airlines and buying newer planes are not the sole solutions. The US has over a hundred airlines flying hundreds of aircraft carrying millions of passengers a year, and only had 20 fatalities this year. In the US, the focus is always on crew training, aircraft maintenance and accountability at the highest levels within the airlines themselves. These three fundamentals are distinctly lacking in the Russian aviation industry. Whilst world class safety rules and inspections are now the norm in Moscow and St. Petersburg, these same practices often do not reach the far reaches of the regional airports and airlines.
Often, smaller airlines are 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 aviation company executive flies planes until they crash.
Sadly, however, it’s often the case in Russia for companies to routinely claim ‘pilot error’. 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-42’s 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, EASA – 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.
The official results of the investigation are expected to be announced on Monday. Rather too quick for my liking as it implies the usual Russian tendency to assign blame to the dead pilots, sweep everything under the rug, and carry on with life as usual. Take Siberian Airlines (Sibir) as an example. They had two accidents in three years involving Tu-154 aircraft. So they mothballed their ageing Soviet fleet and renamed themselves S7. Sadly the name change didn’t work. A year after they changed their name they crashed an Airbus A-310 killing 124 people.
Versions about possible technical failures have been rejected, according to the last report published by the Interstate Aviation Committee on its official website. But In a nation where a lack of government transparency allows conspiracy theories to flourish, the search for the truth is bound to hang in the air for years to come.