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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Post-Soviet Airlines Struggle to Improve Safety

The numbers don't look good: Passengers flying on the civil airlines of the former Soviet Union were 10 times as likely to die in a crash over the past five years as in the five years before that.

Rudolf Teimurazov, head of the Intergovernmental Aviation Commission's flight safety commission, said Wednesday that 1,462 air travelers in the Commonwealth of Independent States have died in civil air-related accidents since 1992. In the previous five-year period, 477 died.

If you add to those statistics the fact that air traffic has dropped dramatically over the same period -- from 119 million passengers in 1987 to approximately 37.5 million in 1996 -- then the odds get grim.

This steep rise in the rate of air fatalities has been caused by a range of factors, Teimurazov said, including the wholesale deregulation of the airline industry, aging aircraft, lack of adequate maintenance and overloading.

But don't despair. According to Mikhail Yerusalimsky, head of the information and analysis division of the Transport Ministry, this nosedive in air safety bottomed out in 1993 and has improved since. Furthermore, for the regular traveler using scheduled airline flights in 1996, there was little to worry about.

"As far as regularly scheduled passenger flights are concerned, there was just one accident [in 1996], in which a Yak-40 crashed on its approach to Khanty-Mansiisk, killing five people," he said. "That's the only regularly scheduled passenger flight for 1996 [that crashed]." That, he said, would make flying scheduled carriers in the CIS safer than in the United States -- where 394 people died in crashes on commercial carriers in 1996, according to U.S. Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Rebecca Trexler.

But this approach does not take into account charter flights that went down last year, including the Tupolev 154 carrying miners and their families that crashed in Spitzbergen, killing all 141 on board. Nor does it account for military aircraft, such as the Antonov-12 that crashed at an airfield near Pskov last December, killing 17.

In early 1994, world attention focused keenly on the question of air safety in the former Soviet Union after the crashes of two Russian aircraft -- one in January that killed 125 and another in March that killed 75. The U.S. State Department strongly discouraged its employees from flying CIS carriers, and the Washington-based International Airline Passengers Association advised its members to avoid flying over any part of the former Soviet Union.

The FAA subsequently conducted a months-long study, using 100 experts to study Russian air industry oversight, regulation, air traffic control, legal questions and accident investigation techniques. It found that air safety in the CIS met the "minimal standards" of the International Civil Aviation Organization, the aviation arm of the United Nations.

"Since then," said Dennis Cooper, a Moscow-based senior representative of the FAA, "we've used [the report] as a blueprint to work in all of these areas."

Despite the rising fatality statistics, Cooper said, Russia has made progress in dealing with an overwhelmingly complex situation. Part of the problem, he said, was that in the Soviet system the Civil Aviation Ministry had acted as "regulatory body, air traffic control system and the sole national airline" all rolled into one. With deregulation, the scramble to control the industry and ensure safety was on.

"Every responsible civil aviation authority in the world tries to make their system perfect so that no one dies in an accident," said Cooper. "We're still confident that they're [meeting minimal international standards]."

Deaths in civil air crashes over the former Soviet Union and CIS

1987: 47

1988: 120

1989: 107

1990: 203

1991: 249

1992: 250

1993: 347

1994: 327

1995: 246

1996: 292