6 questions about Russian aviation safety

Much has been made of Russia's dismal aviation safety record in the wake of the crash of a charter plane that killed 43 people, including 36 players and staff from a Kontinental Hockey League team.
Rescue specialists work at the site of a plane crash near the Russian city of Yaroslavl where a plane crashed Sept. 7, 2011, killing 43 people. Aging aircraft operated by small cost-cutting carriers are being blamed for many of Russia's aviation safety problems. (Maxim Shipenkov/Pool/Reuters)

Much has been made of Russia's dismal aviation safety record in the wake of the crash of a charter plane that killed 43 people, including 36 players and staff from a Kontinental Hockey League team. But crash data from several agencies shows the problem is not necessarily plaguing the entire Russian aviation industry but is more nuanced.

What is Russia's safety record?

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) measures accidents according to something it calls the rate of "hull losses" per million "sectors," with a hull loss defined as a crash that renders the plane irreparable and a sector meaning a flight that includes a takeoff and a landing. According to the latest IATA figures, Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries had an accident rate of 7.15 hull losses per million sectors in 2010, which is almost three times the world rate. In 2009, however, the rate was lower than the world average: Russia and CIS had a hull loss rate of 1.76 versus 2.54 for the rest of the world.

The Aviation Safety Network (ASN), which compiles statistics on crashes and other incidents involving passenger, military, transport and corporate aircraft based on official accident reports, safety authorities and industry sources, has documented 13 what it calls "occurrences" so far this year in Russia, eight of them fatal, with a total 119 people killed.

In 2010, ASN recorded 15 occurrences, four of them fatal, and a death toll of 122. The worst crash that year killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 87 other people and involved a Tupolev 154M passenger jet operated by the Polish air force.

By comparison, in 2011, Canada had six occurrences, four of them fatal, with a death toll of 15, and the U.S. had nine, three of them fatal, with a death toll of seven. In 2010, Canada had four occurrences, with only one fatal crash and two deaths; the U.S. had 24 occurrences, six of which were fatal, and a total 20 deaths.

The ASN data of aircraft occurrences includes accidents as well as other incidents that affect the operation of an aircraft, such as hijackings.

What is the international view of Russia's safety record?

In June 2011, then IATA director general and CEO Giovanni Bisignani praised Russia for the progress it has made in recent years to improve flight safety. The 13 largest Russian carriers have all passed IATA's operational safety audit, and none of them has "recorded an accident with loss of life over the last three years," Bisignani said at the time.

But he also warned that "safety concerns remain with the continued operation of some Russian-built equipment that does not comply with ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) standards."

Emergency Ministry members work at the site of a Tupolev-134 plane crash outside the northern Russian city of Petrozavodsk on June 21, 2011. The crash, which killed 47 people, was the last big aircraft accident in Russia prior to the Sept. 7 incident. (Timur Khanov/Komsomolskaya Pravda/ Reuters )

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the U.S. does not keep data on accidents or individual carriers in other countries per se, but it does occasionally do international aviation safety assessments. In the most recent assessment it did for Russia, last updated in April 2011, the country received a Category 1 rating, meaning FAA inspectors found that the country's civil aviation authority licenses and oversees air carriers "in accordance with ICAO aviation safety standards."

'We don't look at individual airlines," said FAA spokesperson Les Dorr. "What we look at is the ability of the Russian civil aviation authority to, basically, do its job, to administer its aviation infrastructure in accordance with international regulations. At that time … they fully satisfied all international regulations.

"I certainly couldn't speculate on whether we would do a reassessment any time in the near future."

Canada's Transportation Safety Board said it only investigates incidents in Canada or involving Canadian carriers and has not done any assessments of Russia's aviation safety record.

How many airlines does Russia have?

In Soviet times, the state-owned Aeroflot operated all flights and was at one point the largest airline in the world. But following the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, hundreds of smaller carriers sprang up. Today, about 130 carriers operate in Russia, according to Russian Transport Minister Igor Levitin, although only 10 of them handle about 85 per cent of air passengers.

Following the Sept. 7, 2011, crash, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev blamed this proliferation of small airlines for some of the safety problems the country's aviation industry has faced.

"The number of air companies should be radically reduced, and it's necessary to do this within the shortest time," he said at a news conference.

But while the number of carriers has grown, the number of passengers travelling by air has dropped since the breakup of the Soviet Union. According to a statement made in June 2011 by then IATA director general and CEO Bisignani: "Russian aviation handles about 57 million passengers. That's 10 per cent more than in 2008 but still less than half the 120 million people who flew annually on Aeroflot in Soviet times."

IATA said that is likely the result of a combination of the economic changes that have occurred since the fall of the Communist regime, meaning fewer people can afford to fly, and the fact that the now independent republics of the former Soviet Union are not included in the passenger figures.

What is the root of the problem?

Experts agree that the safety problem in Russia and the CIS countries is not with the large carriers like Aeroflot and Transaero that transport the majority of passengers but with the dozens of smaller regional and charter carriers that operate throughout the vast country, which has a surface area of 17 million square kilometres, many of them not reasonably accessible other than by air.

The smaller carriers use predominantly older Soviet-era aircraft or secondhand Western models, many of which do not meet current international safety standards. When non-Western built aircraft are taken out of the equation of the IATA accident statistics, for example, the rate of hull losses per million flights for both 2010 and 2009 falls to zero.

Critic also say many of the small Russian and CIS carriers are owned by newly minted post-Soviet entrepreneurs who have little knowledge of the industry and little interest in anything but profit. That, some experts say, means they neglect safety, flight training for their pilots and crew and maintenance of their aircraft — all in a bid to save costs. Some even fine their pilots for using too much fuel, failing to land on the first try or choosing to abort a flight.

Slack enforcement of safety regulations and failure to punish airlines that violate them; low pilot pay; and too few flight training hours at flight schools have also been cited as reasons for the small carriers' shoddy safety record.

When was the last major plane crash?

The last big crash in Russia occurred on June 20, 2011, when a Tupolev 134A-3 operated by RusAir crash-landed while approaching a runway at Petrozavodsk Airport, killing 47 of 52 occupants, according to the Aviation Safety Network.

What's Russia doing to improve safety?

In April 2011, the Russian government announced plans to improve air safety standards. According to the state news agency RIA Novosti, these plans include the "technical overhaul of about 300 air traffic control facilities," the creation of at least five new centres for analysis of air crashes, new monitoring equipment on runways and new flight safety management technology to help air traffic officials with decision-making.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has also vowed to begin taking aging Soviet-built aircraft out of service in 2012 and in the wake of the Sept. 7, 2011, crash said he would expedite the industry overhaul and work quickly to reduce the number of small carriers operating in the country.

With files from The Associated Press