by Mike Walker
The loss of Tatarstan Airlines Flight 363 and all fifty people aboard that flight is truly tragic and one of the worst single airline accidents recently world-wide. To some in the Western media, the fact it happened in Russia was no surprise and they were the first to point out that Russia in recent years has held the worst overall safety record for airline -related aircraft accidents in the world. As information comes in from Kazan, where Flight 363 crashed, some basics of what happened are becoming known but of course the investigation is only getting started and much is still very much unknown.
As we have seen in many airline accidents where there was a hull loss of the aircraft plus the loss of all lives aboard, it can take months to put together all the clues of what happened and even then, sometimes the full and exact truth cannot be known. For now, journalists are dealing with—and forcing their public to deal with—two rather different things: firstly, the immediate aspects of the Kazan crash as these become known and secondly, the extended issues germane to air travel in Russia and on Russian carriers. The Kazan disaster is an understandable catalyst for people to talk about the overall situation of Russian air travel and the safety thereof, but it is also a difficult time to approach that issue, as this horrible crash can only make most people think the worst of air travel right now. For Russia, it is an especially delicate situation because of the statistics that suggest Russia has the “worst” safety record for airliners of any nation currently.
To understand on a nuanced level the situation of air travel in Russia, however, a great many separate aspects have to be considered and to see why Russia’s safety record rates so low, those varied parameters need careful investigation. Not all Russian airlines are providing poor safety nowadays—in fact, most are doing very well. However, the recent history of Russia is very telling of how problems can crop up. For one, as many are aware, under the Soviet Union, Aeroflot was the primary national carrier and indeed functioned even as a military reserve fleet—you can find old photos of cargo planes and various models of helicopters in Aeroflot’s trademark blue colors that served both the military and actual civil applications via Aeroflot, but mainly the military. The fleet was vast and diverse and benefited greatly from its association with the air force and its ability to be provided technical staffing and expertise via the same.
When the Soviet Union disbanded and Russia was entering the uncharted course of a free-market economy in the early 1990s, Aeroflot suffered from these rapid changes in a variety of ways, most of which were quite unexpected even to Aeroflot leadership, business insiders, and industry experts. For one, regional authorities and even individual cities and airports attempted to take the local Aeroflot fleet planes based at their airports and start their own airlines with them, as they watched other forms of state-owned businesses from grocery stores to factories come into private hands via auction. While it may seem quite apparent that one cannot just gather up aircraft at one’s airport that belong to someone else and form a whole new airline with them, that was—in simple terms—exactly what happened in a number of instances. No one was certain in the new free market how to proceed with the elaborate transfer of government-held businesses into private hands and many things were done in ways that were, at best, hasty and at worst probably not legal—or should have at least not been legal. The economic situation was one where Aeroflot was having problems paying all of its pilots and other staff plus the expenses of fuel and upkeep for its fleet, and its regional offices in some cases were not even getting money sent to them from Moscow to pay for hardly anything at all. This lead to the concept that if the airline could be divested of its material assets, those assets at least could be applied to a viable business whereas Aeroflot, as it was known, was not going to survive literally in one piece. In the end, the divestment process became more polite and orderly, but still Aeroflot saw much of its fleet—especially in the Russian East—sold off to become parts of the new “baby-Flots” or regional carriers that rose out of the ashes of the Soviet system.
Why did this happen in so disorganized a manner, and why is it still important today? For one, no one in the Soviet Union—except perhaps some very senior people and KGB analysts—really had much of an idea of how free markets worked elsewhere. Economists, even those at Gosplan, the state central economic planning authority, much less those at universities, were not allowed to take foreign (Western) academic journals or travel to foreign conferences. There was an academic vacuum in finance and economics worse than that in most of the sciences, though in some other areas such as the biomedical sciences it still was bad enough. The Russian academics of the late Soviet period, though very bright and well-educated, were cloistered away from the international community to a great degree and when it came to understanding how markets other than communism functioned, that was a great hardship that had to be very quickly overcome in the early 1990s. The Soviet system of centralized, top-down administration meant that any business large enough to have many regional offices suffered during this time period from a lack of communications and swift transfers of funds when needed, and Aeroflot was most certainly such a business. The geography of Russia is vast—the largest nation in the world and under the flag of the USSR, even larger—and much of it is remote.
Air travel was the great technological solution that made the USSR as a geopolitical power even possible on a pragmatic level in the first place, but once the Soviet system started to unravel, Aeroflot faced problems it had not encountered before. In example, new nations such as the central Asian republics were forming and there were ample questions of what would happen to Russian-owned material assets in these nations; in Mongolia, which was already an independent nation, a shift away from communism was also in progress and a strong anti-Russian/anti-communist spirit was becoming more and more popular. MIAT, Mongolia’s national carrier (which was designed directly from the template of Aeroflot’s example) had sold jet fuel to Aeroflot planes at Mongolian airports and in many cases the bill had not yet been paid—a situation also reported at airports in Russia and elsewhere, too—because of problems in moving funds into the right hands to see that accounts were paid properly.
In some cases, in Mongolia and otherwise, this lead to regional authorities arresting Aeroflot planes and keeping them until the fuel and other services were paid for, much akin to how a cargo ship can be arrested under admiralty law provisions for in rem jurisdiction complaints against the ship’s owner. The net result of these actions plus rapid changes in how business was done in Russia was not only that Aeroflot found itself much smaller than it had been in Soviet times but also without the support networks it used for its supply chain and training needs. Under the Soviet system, there was—for better or worse—very strong centralized administration: the same people who saw to it that your pilots were trained in specific type (of aircraft) for the Tupolev jets they flew were the same people you called about fuel or funding for your regional airport or getting spare parts for your aircraft. When the smaller regional carriers came into being, because of their grab-and-take approach to Aeroflot when it was in its darkest hour, these “baby-Flots” expectedly did not find the support network that Aeroflot had nor access to Aeroflot’s resources. Instead, they were left to their own devices in many cases to get things done on all levels. However, the federal authority for pilots’ licenses, training, aircraft air worthiness, and even post-accident investigation s remained highly centralized, cloistered, and obtuse.
By 2012, Russia had a whole host of small regional carrier plus Aeroflot and other large airlines such as S7. The diamond mining corporation Alrosa alone owns not one but two airlines. Concerns such as Voronezh-based Polet Airlines have only grown in size and are still growing, with orders for new aircraft on the way, and in general the airline and air cargo business in Russia has only become a larger and larger industry over time, which on the surface should indicate the type of economic climate to promote better conditions. However, the problem was that in the mid-1990s, money was not invested to improve upon the decaying yet growing infrastructure left over from the USSR. Airlines such as Novosibirsk Air Enterprise, which was founded out of regional Aeroflot assets in 1995, concentrated on low-profit utility services (cartography, crop dusting, pipeline monitoring) using left-over Aeroflot aircraft while also expanding further into airline services. This approach—combined airline routes, cargo, and utility services—to aviation provision worked for Aeroflot in the Soviet era because the overall system was designed to support such a uniform approach and there was no alternative. However, it was too much for most of the new regional carriers to tackle and many faltered in one regard or another. What is more, their fleets were aging—in some cases, markedly. Some of these small carriers closed up shop in short order while others like Novosibirsk lingered on for over a decade and only folded as recently as 2011, but in general whether the specific carriers found success or not, the damage was done to the overall state of post-Soviet civil aviation. If all this seems like a lot of business history unrelated to an airplane crash, consider the following outcomes germane to the post-Soviet airline enterprise climate in Russia:
—All civil aviation operations in the USSR were built around the Aeroflot model and around the more general idea of Gosplan’s central administration of finances and purchasing. Civil aviation—like most Soviet industries—was simply not meant to function out of diverse, independent, businesses based in regional cities. Supply chain logistics and fiscal aspects alike were greatly hampered by the post-Soviet transition.
—Most aircraft in Aeroflot’s fleets were already aging in the early 1990s and many suffered further damage—some, in the most literal of terms—during the early period of reform when new carriers were coming into the market. This meant a lot of old and poorly-serviced aircraft were still in use. Some remain in active airline service even today.
—When carriers could finally afford new aircraft by the early 2000s, most courted either Boeing or Airbus for aircraft, yet most pilots were trained on Tupolev jets and the level of type training (specific to the type of aircraft—the model involved) provided to pilots on the new planes was in most cases substandard compared to the United States and elsewhere.
—In relation to the above, the Russian model of aviation pedagogy favors the instruction of strong basic skills to pilots regardless of the specific aircraft they will fly and while there is ample rigor in this portion of pilot education, type certification and recurrency are not given nearly as much importance. This issue is already being cited as a possible human-error factor in the Kazan crash: that the pilots may not have had enough time or experience on the aircraft involved to be able to operate i properly in adverse conditions.
—The CHAYKA and Alpha radionavigation systems long used in Russia as well as the Russian GPS systems have been due for comprehensive upgrades and replacement for years, if not decades, and yet this process of updating the navigation systems only now—as recently as 2012—has been provided a fully-encompassing federal-level plan. And just like the strange soap opera of Sibneft in the oil production sector, the divestment of state-owned aspects of civil aviation lead to many open questions of who should pay for what and what aspects must stay state-owned whereas which ones were better off in private hands. While in the Soviet model, Gosplan and various other agencies could take on the issues of upgrading navigational systems side-by-side with those of upgrading actual aircraft fleets, these diverse concerns became both state and private matters in the market-based system. With the aviation business a delicate one with poor cash flow in many respects and a long-term instead of short-order profit basis, infrastructure from airports to radionavigation to aircraft to pilot training all suffered. Just as the Russian federal government fought with Sibneft to prevent it from merging with Yukos, it bitterly at times fought with various airlines over how civil aviation should be operated and how necessary improvements would be afforded. This has created a rather risk-adverse environment for aviation business where the most investment is made in new aircraft—a needed but also flashy aspect of the operation that helps court customers—and no one, not state nor airlines, wishes to improve upon regional airports much less anything less apparent to the naked eye or common customer.
—The culture of pilots in Russia is a “can-do” one that should be admired for the courage and adept skills of these professionals, but also one—as noted above—that places greater emphasis on basic skills than continued education and advances in technology. Alas, while this approach has served Russia well in cases such as Alrosa Mirny Air Enterprise Flight 514 where the pilots were able to land their aircraft on an abandoned military airstrip when the airplane suffered an electrical failure, it is a philosophy that runs contra to the common current approach of most aircraft designers. Contemporary aircraft—especially the Airbus airliners—favor the aircraft’s onboard computer systems and specific design to improve safety and thus demand that the pilots become not so much experts on the art of flight, but on the given aircraft at hand. In the United States, some airlines have even advocated for a special pilot’s license that would not entail the long process needed for the top-level ATP (Airline Pilot License) but would instead train new pilots to serve as second or first officers with a training program more akin to what Air Force drone operators are given and much more based on the specifics of the aircraft over the more diverse aspects of the general science of flight. The Russian system however still favors a model of training that was established when celestial navigation was still taught to pilots and used on routine flights and when much less complexity and automated systems were found specific to different aircraft.
This all considered, the major Russian carriers such as Aeroflot and S7 now have safety records and standards that are in keeping with those of the majority of international carriers world-wide, and to retain their legal ability to enter foreign airports, they must meet the standards of the American FAA, the British CAA, and other authorities known for their exacting rigor. There should be little doubt that today’s Aeroflot and the other major Russian airlines are world-class. The smaller regional carriers vary greatly, though, with some running operations that are stellar examples of good safety and sound business and others not setting as strong examples. According to an article in Russia Behind the Headlines by Marina Obarzkova (18 November 2013) Oleg Smirnov, the chairman of the Civil Aviation Transport Supervision of the Public Council of Rostransnadzor, is quoted as lamenting the situation of Russian aviation regulation that positions too many different aspects of rule-making and control—from pilot standards to accident investigation—within the same authorities. Without a doubt, he has a point: to a certain extent, the Soviet model still lives on in at least the federal oversight approach and this is not up to speed with how aviation now functions, nor can it allow for the checks and balances really necessary to ensure the best stewardship.
The exact causes of the accident in Kazan that took fifty lives are yet to be discerned and it may take time to be able to say for certain exactly what went wrong, but a combination of acute technical problems coupled with human error already looks likely. Should this tragic accident scare people away from flying on Russian-based airlines? Not if they have a good specific safety record, fly newer aircraft, and seem to be running quality businesses where appropriate measures are taken to ensure the highest levels of service. If those parameters are found, then there should be no reason to doubt that a Russian carrier is not just as good as any other airline. Indeed, we all can recall the awful fate of Air France Flight 447 where all 228 people aboard died off the coast of Brazil, and how many people due to that one accident see Air France or French carries as substandard? Probably very few, and that is how it should be, as aviation the world over has overall very good records of safety considering how very many planes are aloft all the time, every day, and on so many routes and Russian aviation, while still meeting some unique challenges, is working in that same arena of quality for the most part. We can only hope this disaster will now become a motivation for even better standards and improvements in Russia but I do not fear flying the majority of Russian airlines even tomorrow nonetheless.