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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Why Not Fly Russian?

Over the past three or four years, there has been a definite perception that it is markedly less safe to be a passenger on a Russian airline than on an airline of most other countries.

This has been fueled by stories ranging from passengers standing in the aisles on takeoff to the single, but infamous, case of a child flying an Airbus.

What has not been told is the story of the work being done to improve air safety. Regrettably, Russia does not yet recognize the need to tell the public "the what and why" of actions being taken.

In the 1980s, internationally available statistics showed that in most years, Soviet aviation was better than the world average in safety. In 1984, it was equal, in 1986, it was a bit worse. In all other years, it was notably better. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the separation of Aeroflot into hundreds of "new" airlines came an uncertainty about who should control what, and several accidents resulted, although mostly to cargo flights.

And with the separation came a new openness. Now every accident was widely reported. In the past, the Soviet authorities reported airliner accidents; now came reports of accidents to helicopters, agriculture and training aircraft and even sports aircraft. These accidents certainly occurred and should not be ignored. But like must be compared with like, and airline-related accidents should be measured and reported on a par with those of the West.

Before the Airbus accident in March 1994, Russia's Air Transport Department had begun to work to improve safety levels. The Airbus accident lent urgency to the work and resulted in the department inviting the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to join it in preparing a report, which was issued in November. Its statement that "Russian aviation minimally met world safety standards" was widely reported. However, many worthwhile qualities in Russian aviation -- some of which the report said should be considered for international adoption -- went unreported. Since the report, Russia has set about reorganizing its aviation procedures, personnel, airlines, airports and manufacturing plants in line with those in most other countries of the world.

The first thing the department did was check the qualification level of all aviation specialists -- crews, engineers, mechanics -- and license them, Western-style, in accordance with their capabilities as defined by their health, education and experience and ensure their continued training at defined periods.

Then the department began to send engineers and other specialists out to Russia's airports and airline offices to monitor the operators. By the end of 1995, some 76 of the 466 registered airlines had their licenses withdrawn, and 19 others were limited from flying outside the Commonwealth of Independent States. And more than 100 aircraft were grounded, most permanently, and some until particular work had been carried out.

To do this work, the department established regional offices in 200 Russian regions. It estimates that 3,000 specialists are needed to adequately monitor Russia's airlines and airports. So far, about 1,800 are employed. It is requesting funds from the budget to hire the other 1,200 or so.

The department recognizes that as yet it does not have the technical ability to monitor the 23 Western airlines currently in service in Russia, so it has reached agreement with other countries, including the United States, France and Ireland, to monitor these. It has also sent technical experts to check the maintenance facilities in other countries to ensure that they can do the work to satisfactory standards.

The department is now thoroughly assessing every major aircraft repair facility in Russia and has begun to certify them just as Europe and the United States do. When this is done, it will begin to license suitable foreign workshops to undertake work on Russian aircraft, including those in other CIS countries and in Europe, America and the Middle East.

Early in 1996, the department began to tighten the requirements for airlines. Unlike other countries, now each airline must justify the renewal of its operator's licence each year. It is also beginning to monitor the airlines' finances, since a shortage of money often leads to operational and engineering shortcuts, which in turn can lead to accidents.

The next major task to be undertaken is that of certifying the production factories. In Soviet times, there was a notable coolness between the Ministry of Civil Aviation, which is now the Air Transport Department, and the Ministry of Aviation Industry, now part of the Committee for Defense Industries. Both are now working with the Interstate Aviation Committee, the MAK, but there is notable friction between the industry and the MAK, mainly over the MAK's perceived favorable treatment of Western aircraft.

If Russia's aviation industry is to develop world markets, and even to survive, it will have to deal with the question of certification of Russia's aircraft factories. Currently it is a bureaucratic problem, but it must be solved to guarantee both safety and the survival of a major industry. Both matters should be above politics.

A major task for the department is the preparation of a new air code. The Soviet one made rules for every aspect of aviation. Now there is a need to change, to give some sensible flexibility. This question has already taken too long to resolve. A sound legal base is essential for safe aviation.

Much good work has been done to clear the way for a safe future for Russia's airline industry. The continuation of the work depends not only on resolve, which is present, and settling administrative problems between former departments, but also on money. Some income comes to the department from its work but nowhere near enough. Safety is entitled to government support.

Such steps must be taken, for safety is no accident.

Paul Duffy is an aviation consultant. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.