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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Don't Ditch Jets For Trains Just Yet

Passengers on their way to Sheremetyevo or Domodedovo could be forgiven for hopping on a train after an international report this week said Russia had the worst flight safety record in the world.

The report on flight safety, issued Tuesday by the International Air Transport Association, was grim reading for nervous and eager flyers alike, damning Russia, along with the CIS, as the most dangerous countries for air travel.

And flyers could hardly be comforted by two incidents this week. A Moscow-Samara flight from Domodedovo Airport was canceled Thursday because of an engine malfunction in a Tu-134 jet. And passengers on a Ukrainian commercial flight from Tbilisi to Kiev flew for 90 minutes with one of the plane's doors open before pilots were forced to return and make an emergency landing in the Georgian capital on Wednesday night, Georgian television reported.

The IATA report said the accident rate in Russia and the CIS in 2006 was 8.6 accidents per million flights, by far the highest in the world and 13 times higher than the global average.

It spawned a barrage of Grim Reaper headlines in the national and foreign press, and Komsomolskaya Pravda tactfully offered a graph of various countries' accident rates set against a picture of a plane plummeting to the ground with its engines on fire.

There is no doubt that last year was the worst in post-Soviet history for Russian air travel. Five major crashes took place on Russian territory, killing 308.

But there is a different story behind the statistics, and the report's gloomy warnings deserve, if not skepticism, then at least some clarification, experts say.

The IATA report accounts only for Western aircraft, which make up a small fraction of the aircraft that fly in Russia but were at the heart of the death toll in former Soviet territory last year. Some experts say personnel receive inadequate training in working with Western planes.

Of last year's three deadliest crashes, two involved foreign airplanes. An S7 Airbus A-310 crashed in Irkutsk on July 9, killing 129 people. An Armenian airline Armavia Airbus A-320 crashed on a flight from Sochi to Yerevan on May 3, killing 113 people.

A Russian-made Tu-154 operated by Pulkovo Airlines crashed in Donetsk, Ukraine, on Aug. 22, killing 170 people.

Russia has 2,840 planes operating for commercial flights, of which only 83 are Western aircraft, mostly built by Boeing and Airbus, said Rafail Aptukov of the Moscow-based nonprofit group Flight Safety Foundation International.

"It does not reflect the reality," Aptukov said. "We have had a burst of crashes, but to call it the most dangerous country in the world is, to say the least, rubbish."

Russia had an overall rate of 0.19 accidents for every 100,000 hours of flight for both domestic and Western aircraft, Aptukov said, citing International Civil Aviation Authority figures. It is far lower than the figure given in the IATA report, but it is still a fourfold increase on 2005, he said.

"You shouldn't examine over one year, but over a long period," said Oleg Panteleyev, an analyst at Aviaport.ru, a news web site covering the Russian aviation industry, adding that Russia had a solid record over the past few years.

Airlines like Aeroflot and Transaero have records that compare favorably with many Western airlines, he said.

"In 2004, there were no catastrophes at all, unlike in Europe or the United States," Transportation Ministry spokesman Timur Khikmatov said.

Russian airlines have been fighting to rehabilitate their reputation around the world for over a decade after a horrible period following the breakup of the Soviet Union, when Russia and other former Soviet republics were hit by a series of plane crashes, as maintenance and supervision deteriorated.

Before the two Airbus crashes last year, the last time a Western plane crashed in Russia was in 1994 -- a dark period for Russian airlines -- when an Airbus crashed near Novokuznetsk, in the Kemerovo region, killing 70 people.

That crash was due to pilot error, as the pilot had let his teenage son take over the controls. The son accidentally switched off the autopilot, and the plane crashed.

While the IATA report may give a misleading view of the situation, experts said it did point to one particular weakness: The growing use of Western planes is exposing a lack of trained personnel as a major problem.

All of the three crashes last year were caused by pilot error, Khikmatov said.

Some pilots do not get enough training for Western planes, Khikmatov said. Aeroflot is the only airline with its own Western flight simulator, and for some other airlines it is too costly to send pilots abroad to train.

The richer airlines can afford full training programs, but the smaller airlines do only the minimum, Panteleyev said.

"We want flight schools to buy more modern flight simulators," Khikmatov said, noting that 80 percent of recent crashes were due to pilot error and that the ministry was trying to raise the number of hours pilots should train.

Russia has agreed to join the IATA Partnership for Safety program, and a number of Russian airlines, including Aeroflot, have already been accepted into the IATA Operational Safety Audit program.

But as more and more Russian airlines use Western planes, problems could increase, Panteleyev said.

"Airlines are getting closer to the point where there are not enough qualified personnel -- including pilots and ground staff," Panteleyev said. "The problem will become more and more serious in the future."