With nine air tragedies in 2011 alone, Russia now ranks as one of the most dangerous counties for air passengers in the world.
This is according to a survey taken by Ascend, a London aviation consultancy, the Wall Street Journal reported.
The UK specialists say that in 2011, Russia’s airlines performed worse than those of Congo and Indonesia – developing countries facing regular safety issues.
Russian airlines claim that Soviet-era equipment is the main reason behind the numerous crashes, and the aviation specialists point out that many companies try to save money by giving old planes longer careers than they should, despite evident safety troubles. There is also a trend to cut corners on safety, as complying with international safety standards costs much more than Russia’s regular air carrier is able to spend.
Eight of Russia's nine crashes in 2011 involved Soviet-era planes. And in November 2011, four Russian carriers were banned from crossing the European Union’s borders. The ban will last until the companies’ service “meets European standards” – including safety standards.
A new light on the situation was shed by recent investigations into high-profile plane crashes, such as the one of Yak-42 passenger jet carrying an ice hockey team.
As it turned out, the blood of the plane’s second pilot contained a medication banned during flight operation, Phenobarbital, which slows down the central nervous system. The investigating commission also said the crew erroneously applied the brakes before takeoff – the conclusion being that the pilots did not have sufficient training flying that type of aircraft.
It is also alleged that a drunken crew member was behind the June crash of the RusAir Tupolev Tu-134 passenger plane that killed 47 of the 52 people on board.
“Seventy per cent of air crashes that took place in 2010 were connected with the so-called human factor – I mean, pilot errors,” Ilya Vasberg, editor-in-chief of Aviasoyuz Magazine, told RT. “In recent years the quality of education in this sphere has dropped. I am not talking about teachers alone, I also mean the quality of training aircrafts. Russia’s air infrastructure is also very poor. Remember the Petrozavodsk crash in June? The airport of Petrozavodsk wasn’t prepared to receive the plane.”
Russia’s aviation chiefs say they acknowledge the problems and are ready to fight them. In the most recent turn of events, the authorities have closed a range of small airline carriers, most likely to assure passenger safety. In addition, most Soviet-built planes will be completely banned from flying.
As part of the effort to fight alcoholism among pilots, it is planned to equip all planes with breathalyzers, and to adopt new laws punishing drunken pilots and other crew with prison sentences. Any member of staff who breaks the rules could also be blacklisted from future flights.
Air carriers doubt, however, that the issue could be solved by blacklisting “bad” crew members, as there is currently a huge shortage of pilots. Instead of catching wrongdoers, airlines suggest reducing the amount of training pilots have to undergo before being given a license. They also want non-residents to be allowed to work as pilots, and for the country to allocate more money for pilot training.
Aviation experts also point out that equipping every single plane with breathalyzers would be far too expensive, and thus ineffective. Professional testers could cost around $1,500 each.
The authorities may also allow foreign airlines to operate domestic services within the country, the Vedomosti newspaper reports. The Ministry of Transportation is currently preparing to allow Czech Airlines and Air Baltic to provide transport for teams belonging to Russia's national ice hockey league, which could be the first step towards an Open Skies policy.