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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sibir Faces a Rough Ride After Airplane Crash

ReutersThe tracks of the jet that crashed Sunday are seen veering off the runway at the Irkutsk airport. An aviation safety expert said the runway was long enough.
Sibir could well be the unluckiest airline in the world.

In the past five years, the company has lost one plane to a stray missile and another to a suicide bomber let onto the plane by a corrupt airport security official.

This week, in a crash at one of the country's most accident-prone airports, it lost a third airliner, at least five of its staff and 121 passengers, according to company figures.

"It's a big psychological blow," said Boris Rybak, a consultant who has worked with the company closely in recent years. "It's a very bitter pill."

But in Sunday's accident there may have been more than luck involved for the country's No. 2 airline.

Initial reports about the cause of the crash suggested the design of the airport and weather conditions were key factors in the disaster.

These have since been played down by some experts, who say errors by Sibir staff or a malfunction in the company's plane likely played a major role in the high death toll.

A verdict that blamed Sibir, even in part, would likely prove a much more serious blow to the airline than past accidents, which were written off by most observers as bad luck.

In August 2004, a Chechen terrorist is believed to have blown up a Sibir plane, after bribing a Domodedovo official to bypass security checks, killing 46 people. In October 2001 a ground-to-air missile fired by the Ukrainian army accidentally destroyed a Sibir Tu-154 off the coast of Sochi, killing all 77 people on board.

"It's very unfortunate for Sibir. This crash is really the first time that the airline could be at least partially blamed" for a major accident, said Yelena Sakhnova, an aviation analyst at Deutsche UFG. "But the company will need to keep a close track on its personnel and the technical situation on its planes."

Sibir spokesman Ilya Novokhatsky said all of their safety procedures were operating fully, as they had been before Sunday's crash.

Whether or not Sibir's safety record can be questioned, the crash is likely to do serious damage to the company's brand, which has been carefully cultivated in the past year to revamp its tarnished image.

The Novosibirsk division of Aeroflot in Soviet times, the company was relaunched as S7 Airlines earlier this year, after several of its planes were repainted in greens and cherry reds with silhouettes of relaxed passengers on the side.

The company acquired its first foreign aircraft in 2004 and now has six Airbuses and 11 Boeings in addition to its 35 Russian-built planes.

The makeover was partly inspired by a desire to erase the association of the Sibir name with the earlier crashes, local trade publication Aviation Today reported, citing unidentified experts.

Pictures of the smoldering hulk of Flight 788 beamed around the world prominently featured the old blue Sibir logo.

While the crash will undoubtedly lead to short-term pain for the company, in the longer term the airline's prospects are not bad, Deutsche UFG's Sakhnova said.

Luckily for Sibir, the local reaction to air crashes tends to be muted, she said.

For one thing, the huge distances across Russia mean that trains are not an attractive option for many airplane passengers. Unlike in more-developed West European markets, Russia's small air travel market is dominated by people traveling out of necessity rather than for fun.

And while Sibir may not be the best airline in Russia in terms of airline safety, it is by no means the worst -- with only Aeroflot's international division boasting true world-class safety standards, said David Learmount, an aviation safety expert with renowned aviation weekly Flight International.

"Sibir and the other major internal Russian airlines are pretty good in terms of safety, but they are not yet up to Western European or American standards," he said, noting that they lacked the "culture of safety" that characterized some of the world's top airlines.

"But I would happily fly with Sibir," he added.

He said that while some of the smaller airports used by Sibir are not up to international standards, the runway in Irkutsk was clearly long enough for Flight 788 to land. While there were buildings close to the runway, such violations are found in airports all over the world, including major airports in Britain and the United States.

Learmount cast doubt on reports that complete brake failure could have caused the crash, saying that the pilot would have known about any brake problems through the warning systems standard on such a plane. Some witness testimony suggests that poor evacuation procedures could have contributed to the high death toll, he said.

Rafail Aptukov, vice president of the Moscow-based nonprofit group Flight Safety Foundation International agreed that the runway could not be blamed for the disaster. He said experts at Aeroproyekt, an institute which studies airport design, had told him they had dismissed that possibility.

As in other similar incidents in the past, such as that in Toronto last year, the problem is likely to be found to be a combination of technical failure, weather conditions and human error, he said.

On Wednesday the plane's two black boxes were being studied by the Interstate Aviation Committee, an aviation regulatory body for former Soviet countries that investigates crashes. The agency declined to speculate on a possible cause. A source close to the government committee investigating the crash said that a technical fault in the plane was considered the most likely cause of the crash, with the poor weather and relatively short runway merely secondary factors, Kommersant reported Wednesday.

If, as seems likely, Sibir's plane or its staff are found even partly to blame, it could take a lot more than marketing to reclaim the public's trust, Sakhnova said. The implementation of new safety measures will most likely take a long time to erase the impression made by the disaster, she said.

"They'll just have to hope people will forget," she said. "That at some time in the future will again think of the company as a reliable airline."