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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

EU Wants Tougher Checks of Airplanes

The European Union is looking to toughen safety checks of some aircraft, raising fears in Moscow that EU skies might end up off-limits to many Russian-built planes.

The European Parliament last week tentatively approved a directive allowing EU member countries to carry out spot checks on foreign airlines and ground those found noncompliant with the rules. The checks will cover crew licenses, the technical condition of aircraft and the presence of safety equipment such as life jackets and fire extinguishers.

The measure targets planes flown by airlines from Russia, Eastern Europe and Africa that "often fail to meet international safety standards," according to the latest draft, a copy of which was obtained by The Moscow Times.

The document singles out Russia, whose fatal accident rate per million flights was 2.68 from 1994 to 1998. That compares with 0.11 in Western Europe over the same period.

Statistics also show that Western-built aircraft are significantly safer than Eastern-built ones, the document says.

Sergei Masterov, deputy head of the flight safety department at the State Civil Aviation Service, derided the directive and criticized the EU's use of accident statistics from a rocky period in Russian aviation.

"This is another measure aiming to push Russian-built aircraft from the European market," Masterov said Tuesday, noting that it follows the EU's introduction of tighter noise restrictions last year.

He said 1994-98 were particularly bad years for Russian aviation -- new airlines were springing up and safety rules were sometimes poorly enforced. It was in 1994 that an Aeroflot Airbus 310 crashed near Novokuznetsk after the pilot's teenage son inadvertently disconnected the autopilot. All 70 people on board died.

In addition, Russian statistics cannot be compared with those in Europe and the United States because they also include accidents involving light aircraft and helicopters, while U.S. and EU statistics only cover commercial flights, Masterov said.

Russia's accident rates are now on a par with Western Europe's and are steadily improving, he said.

European Parliament spokesman Ton Huyssoon on Tuesday refused to comment on whether the planned rules were aimed in part at driving Russian aircraft from EU skies.

"I don't comment on that at all," he said by telephone from Brussels, Belgium.

Huyssoon said spot checks have been carried out for a while at some airports, but the new directive would provide a legal basis for the practice and allow all EU member countries to participate.

He said the EU Council of Transport Ministers is expected to come up with a final draft of the directive by year's end.

If passed by the European Parliament, the directive will be introduced in two years and EU authorities will start issuing an annual report of the perceived safety risks of various planes, airlines and countries.

Masterov said EU authorities have in the past conducted spot checks on Russian planes and tried to ground them. He said Russian civil aviation officials had to intervene on several occasions and explain that the planes fully complied with safety requirements.

"The aim is to dig up more drawbacks with Russian carriers," he said.

Masterov refused to name any particular case, but he said some airlines invite inspections by not keeping their planes spick-and-span.

"Why not wash the airplane and vacuum it one more time before the flight? They nitpick at anything," he said.

He insisted that while safety systems on Russian planes might not be top of the line, they still comply with international requirements.

"There is no limit to improvement, and Western aircraft manufacturers incorporate them in new generation planes," he said.

"Then they try to approach our jets with the same standards, jets that were developed 30 years ago."

Seven accidents and 29 deaths were registered in the first nine months of this year, compared with 15 accidents killing 130 over the same period in 2002, according to the State Civil Aviation Service.

In September, a Ka-32 helicopter crashed near Sochi, killing all nine people on board. In August, a Mi-8 helicopter crashed in Kamchatka, killing all 20 on board, including Sakhalin Governor Igor Farkhutdinov.

Aeroflot and Sibir, the two leading Russian airlines, said the EU's proposed rules would minimally affect their operations.

Aeroflot deputy general director Lev Koshlyakov said the airline's jets go through routine checks abroad.

European inspectors have checked jets in Sibir's all-Russian fleet and none have been grounded, Sibir spokesman Mikhail Koshman said.

He welcomed tougher regulations, saying, "They will bring more order into the industry."

Sibir and Aeroflot are actively seeking to upgrade their fleets with more efficient Western aircraft. Aeroflot is to receive the first of 18 new Airbuses on Wednesday. Sibir is in talks with Boeing and Airbus to lease up to 35 jets.