RUSSIA’S dismal air-safety record made the news again this weekend, when a 23-year-old Boeing 737-500 crashed and exploded at the Kazan airport 450 miles east of Moscow, killing all 44 passengers and six crew.
The tragedy caused much anger and speculation, and highlighted the unaccountable risk of flying in Russia these days. Center-left politician Dmitri Gudkov wrote on his LiveJournal blog that around 75 million air tickets a year are sold in Russia, compared with close to 1 billion in the U.S. Despite the relatively small passenger volumes, Russia is second in the world in fatal plane crashes after the United States.
“I am sure that soon another commission of bureaucrats will find scapegoats for the 50 deaths. I will not be surprised if it’s all written off on the dead pilots: The dead cannot answer back,” Gud-kov wrote. “It was not just one plane that crashed in Kazan but the entire airline industry and, to be honest, the entire Russian government system.”
Posturing aside, there is a recipe for a Russian plane crash that could be derived from the last few years’ incidents, and most of the ingredients were there in the Kazan crash. The Boeing was an old aircraft operated by a small, heavily indebted regional company with only six planes. Although none of these factors, taken separately, caused the crash, their combination apparently spelled disaster.
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The leased 737 was flying for Tatarstan Airlines, based in the eponymous oil-rich region. At least two well-known people were aboard: Irek Minnikhanov, the 25-year-old son of Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov, and Alexander Antonov, head of the local branch of the Russian secret police, the FSB. The younger Minnikhanov had dissuaded his French wife, seven months pregnant, from traveling with him.
Tatarstan was the airplane’s seventh operator since 1990, when it made its first flight. It had been used in France, Uganda, Bulgaria and Brazil — where it was repaired after a landing accident — before coming to Russia. Commenting on the plane’s history, opposition politician and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov suggested on Facebook that Russia should take flight-safety lessons from U.S. carriers “so no one would think of using clunky planes that once flew in Uganda and had accidents in Brazil.”
It’s not quite fair to blame the plane’s age. According to Boeing, about 70 percent of its 737 Classic planes like this one are still in service around the world. The question is whether the company properly serviced the plane, which it was planning to retire in 2014.
Former privatization minister Alfred Kokh suggested the airline’s size must have played a role in the crash. “Ever since the [1990s] there’s been talk of liquidating small regional operators,” Kokh wrote on Facebook. “They do not have the financial resources to ensure the necessary servicing” of planes.
The airline appears to have cared about fleet quality. Apart from one other aging Boeing 737 Classic, it operates four relatively new Airbus A319s, delivered in the last three years. Before the crash, the average age of its fleet was 11.4 years, compared with 14.2 years for American Airlines. Tatarstan is owned by Ak-Bars, a powerful business group with interests in banking, construction, transport, agriculture and food processing. Most of the debts the airline ran up as it revamped its fleet were to friendly or state-controlled local businesses.
The company’s debts, however, might have contributed to the deadliness of the crash. According to a report in the daily Novaya Gazeta, the airline owed the Kazan airport for ground service and therefore had to refuel its planes in Moscow, taking on enough fuel to fly home and then back to the Russian capital. When the plane hit the tarmac, it was carrying about nine tons of jet fuel.
Whatever caused this particular fatal accident, Russian regional carriers’ planes do crash too often. Five such small companies were involved in fatal accidents in 2011, and another two, plus a near-bankrupt Russian discounter, contributed to the woeful statistics in 2012.
All the aircraft that crashed in Russia in 2011 were of Soviet manufacture. After one of those tragedies, then-President Dmitry Medvedev demanded the speedy retirement of the oldest domestically produced airliners. Airlines complied up to a point, and their safety record appeared to improve — until the Kazan disaster.
“My advice as a frequent flyer: Use Aeroflot,” Nemtsov wrote. “My experience shows it is the most reliable airline.”
That might be sound advice. Russia’s state-controlled flag carrier, with the average age of its 139 aircraft at just 5.1 years, has not had a fatal accident since 1994, according to the Aviation Safety Network. Some of its regional subsidiaries cannot match that safety record — they fall into the small Russian airline category, and hence are not for the faint of heart.
Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow correspondent for Bloomberg World View.