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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Of People and Planes

The past year was marked by a number of major airline catastrophes in Russia. An Armavia Airbus A320 crashed while attempting to land in Sochi. An Airbus A310 operated by S7 Airlines burst into flames after sliding off a runway and slamming into a barrier at Irkutsk airport. A Tu-154 aircraft operated by Pulkovo Airlines also crashed near Donetsk.

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According to the black boxes retrieved from the planes, all three crashes were caused by pilot error. None of the accidents, apparently, would have happened had the planes continued operating on autopilot. In the Irkutsk incident, the pilot accidentally increased power to the left engine after landing and lost control.

The Pulkovo pilot decided to fly above a storm front at 11,900 meters and took control of the plane and nosed it upward sharply. The airplane climbed an additional 700 meters in 10 seconds -- exceeding the safety limits for such a maneuver -- stalled, and fell into a flat spin that proved fatal. In the Armavia case, the commander took hold of the controls during a turn in order to gain altitude while his co-pilot was trying to decrease altitude.

All of these accidents share another feature. In each case the pilot was trying to deal with an unusual, but not catastrophic situation. The left engine on the S7 plane couldn't be put in reverse. The Pulkovo pilot reportedly made a risky decision to fly over the storm front to save fuel. The Armavia pilot was flying in low visibility on a second run over the Sochi airport, which is difficult to approach.

All former Soviet-era pilots have logged a great deal of flying time, but mostly in standard situations. Training to deal with unusual situations requires money and flight simulators. But the airlines don't have flight simulators. Even under minimal stress, the pilots' experience isn't much help. It's like suddenly dropping a truck driver with 30 years' experience into the middle of a Formula 1 race.

All of this comes down to economic factors. Put plainly, it's not profitable to worry about human lives. Airlines are required to pay out 100,000 rubles, or a little less than $4,000, to the next of kin of passengers killed in accidents. In the United States, this figure is $3 million. The cost of a Soviet-era Tupolev jet is about $1 million, a sum covered by insurance. Even if courts order additional payments to the families of survivors, the financial losses by an airline if one of its passenger jets crashes are not much more than if the plane had been carrying frozen beef.

The resemblance between Russian and Western airlines ends at the fact that they carry passengers. In the West, human life is valued in dollars. In Russia, we call that a "soulless market system." An air disaster there is also a financial disaster. In our highly spiritual society, human life is worth very little.

What else is there to say? Perhaps that our government's management practices bear a remarkable resemblance to the S7 airliner's landing in Irkutsk. About once per month the government accidently hits the accelerator instead of the brake. Of course it isn't in the interests of the pilot commander to bring ruin upon himself, but he does it anyway. Why? Because he is unprofessional, and nobody gets punished in Russia for being unprofessional.

That this goes unpunished here demonstrates that similarities between the government in Russia and those in the West are superficial. In the West people are punished for murder, while in Russia murderers go free. In the absence of developed civil society institutions, murder and wrongful death are even cheaper for the government than they are for the airlines.

Yulia Latynina hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.