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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Vnukovo Airlines Copes With Debts

A weary-looking Tatevos Surinov, general director of Vnukovo Airlines, said Thursday that the embattled carrier's main task these days is to survive.

"I think all airlines, ourselves included, are thinking about issues of survival," Surinov said at a news conference. "Undoubtedly, 1998 could have been better for us."

Vnukovo Airlines, Russia's second biggest passenger airline after Aeroflot, had a tremendously difficult last year. Not only did the company have to deal with the Aug. 17 crisis and the resulting negative impact on the airline industry, it also experienced two crippling strikes by technical workers and a move of home base from Vnukovo airport to Domodedovo following a dispute over service and prices at the former. Most recently, the company has been dogged by allegations that it was behind the murder last week of a union leader.

Amid the gloom, however, Surinov pushed one bit of good news, saying that passenger figures were down only 6 percent last year from the year before. By comparison, Vnukovo competitor Transaero said last year it expected a decrease of around 10 percent in the number of its passengers.

Surinov openly acknowledged the airline's troubles.

"I don't hide the fact that we have some real problems within the company," he said, singling out the airline's relationship with its technical staff as one of the biggest areas of concern.

The staff went on strike last spring after not receiving wages for three months. In addition, numerous airports and fuel suppliers refused to service Vnukovo Airlines until its back debts to them were paid. Vnukovo was temporarily forced to shut down most of its operations.

The crisis forced out old general director Alexander Romanov, who was replaced by Surinov.

In November, technical workers went on strike again, protesting what they claimed were several months of unpaid wages. On Jan. 15, protesters led by Gennady Borisov, head of the airline's technical and ground personnel union, started picketing Vnukovo headquarters.

A week and a half later, Borisov was stabbed to death outside his apartment building in Moscow and his co-workers have since blamed the airline for his death.

"Of course, we have no proof," said Sergei Yashin, Borisov's deputy, in a recent telephone interview. "But it seems that it is our administration that has benefited from his death."Surinov denied any connection to the murder. "We would have had no reason to have him killed," he said.

He said the airline has been paying its workers on time since last June and that the only money owed to them was for the three months before that, which it would pay back with interest as soon as it was able.

Surinov said people adversely affected by the airline's move to Domodedovo could have been responsible for stirring up trouble with the unions.

The three-months salary the airline owes amounts to some 30 million rubles ($1.3 million at Friday's official rate), he said. The company's other big obligations are 200 million rubles to the Moscow City government - a debt Vnukovo is trying to restructure - and about 16 million rubles to various airports, he said.