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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tu-154 Called One of the Safest Jets in the Air

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Russia's biggest air disaster in a decade — the Tu-154M crash that killed 145 passengers in Siberia on Tuesday — is raising fresh fears about the safety of the country's mostly Soviet-built aircraft.

But aviation experts on Wednesday scoffed at the jitters, saying that while the thousands of planes may be considered past their prime by Western standards, they are still among the safest aircraft in service anywhere.

And the Tu-154, they said, is among the best in the world in terms of safety.

President Vladimir Putin was quick to order the government Wednesday to take a look at aviation safety regulations, which are widely perceived as being poorly adhered to by some of the country's cash-strapped airlines.

"I count on the government to pay attention to the need to strengthen controls over the condition of equipment," Putin told Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov in televised remarks. "The State Civil Aviation Service should report to you in the near future about what must be done in this regard."

There has not been a fatal crash on a scheduled commercial flight in Russia since 1997. In that accident, a propeller-driven An-24 aircraft flown by Stavropol Airlines disintegrated in flight over southern Russia, killing all 50 people on board. The crash led to serious holes being found in safety regulations and triggered a major revamp of the system.

"That accident was indeed a disaster in which everyone involved — the state, the airline — made an incredible amount of mistakes that lead to the tragedy," said Alexei Komarov, editor of the Air Transport Observer magazine.

But safety hit rock bottom several years before that, in the early 1990s after Aeroflot was broken up into hundreds of smaller airlines, Komarov said.

"The safety of flights then was mostly guaranteed by the pilots themselves," he said. "They simply wanted to return home alive."

Following the 1997 disaster, aviation authorities tightened the screws on safety regulations, leading to a steep drop in the number of crashes of commercial and private planes.

Those incidents — which include crashes as well as other problems such as forced landings and engine failures — dropped to a post-Soviet low of 17 last year, according to the State Civil Aviation Service. Only five of those incidents were fatal and 20 people were killed.

The Tu-154's accident rate is comparable to its equivalent in the United States, the Boeing 727, according to Moscow-based aviation analyst Paul Duffy.

Until Tuesday's crash, the performance of commercial airlines was, in fact, so good that international civil aviation organizations were assimilating Russia's safety record to zero, Agence France Press reported.

The rating does not take into account military accidents.

Aviation experts said the Soviet-designed Tupolev-154, the workhorse of Russian aviation, is far from an outdated dinosaur.

"We don't know about the reasons yet [for Tuesday's crash], but we can say that it's a very reliable aircraft," said Alexander Lykov, deputy designer of the Tu-154.

"If we talk about Tu-154s, it's worth remembering that those planes were designed and built in the Soviet Union, where funds were readily available for extensive research and plenty of tests," said Yevgeny Semyonov, deputy director of the Infomost aviation consulting agency. "It's an old but pretty good aircraft."

Aeroflot, whose fleet includes 24 Tu-154s, calls the aircraft "stable and reliable."

Originally designed at the end of the 1960s, the Tu-154 was put into mass production in 1972. The upgraded Tu-154M version was launched in 1984 and produced until 1996.

About 900 Tu-154s were built, of which some 300 are still being flown in Russia and an unknown number abroad. The government has said most of those in Russia will be airworthy until at least 2006.

Since the rollout of the first Tu-154, about two dozen have been involved in fatal accidents. Five were fired at in military or terrorist attacks, two were involved in midair collisions and most of the rest were the result of bad weather and human error.

The plane is commonly known as Tushka, or Hulk, an affectionate name for a big, clumsy person or thing.

Tu-154s account for up to one-third of all commercial passenger planes and fly half of all commercial flights in Russia. The aircraft seats up to 180 people and has a range of 5,400 kilometers.

The civil aviation service considers the plane the most robust of all domestically built aircraft.

However, meeting technical safety requirements is only part of the story, said Komarov.

A much more serious threat to safety, Komarov said, is the fact that many pilots don't get enough practice. The reason is there are too many pilots for too few flights. For example, a smaller airline may have only two planes in its fleet and 40 pilots.

"The problem is that the airlines are often headed by pilots, so they don't dare fire their colleagues as the fleet ages and shrinks," Komarov said.

Semyonov, while defending the record of Russian planes, conceded that there is a greater risk of an accident when flying on the smaller — and usually cash-poor — air carriers.

"It is probably more safe to choose a better-established name when it comes to traveling," he said.