Thinking of boarding a plane in neo-Soviet Russia? Maybe to visit Sochi for the Olympic games? Better think again. The Associated Press reports:
The storm was too massive to fly around, but rather than turn back, Captain Ivan Korogodin decided to risk flying over the towering clouds. The Aug. 22 crash last year of Pulkovo Airlines flight 612 from the Black Sea resort of Anapa to St. Petersburg was officially blamed on pilot error. But safety advocates see it as symptomatic of a much deeper problem with Russian aviation: A burgeoning fleet of small, low-budget airlines, under-trained pilots, weak government regulation and a cost-cutting mentality in which pilots who abort flights and landings are sometimes fined.
Last year, 318 people died in two major crashes and eight lesser ones of planes flown by Russian carriers — close to half the world‘s total of 755 fatalities reported by the International Civil Aviation Organization. The combined death toll in Russia plus the former Soviet republics reached 466 last year. Experts, including pilots who fly the former Soviet skies, say government bodies tolerate practices that are wrecking a once honorable safety record. State-controlled Aeroflot, privately owned Transaero and some other big airlines have modern planes, skilled crews and world-class safety records, experts agree. But scores of smaller carriers, they allege, cut corners on safety. On the flight recorder he is heard ordering co-pilot Andrei Khodnevich to take the plane upward while warning it will be very difficult. The cockpit alarm screams as the plane approaches maximum altitude, and the co-pilot yells “Don‘t kill me!” before the plane hits the ground.
“Naturally no one would admit publicly that flight safety isn‘t the top priority,” said Smirnov, a veteran pilot who was a deputy aviation minister in Soviet times. “But nonprofessionals now in charge of many airlines — former economists, lawyers and even dentists — think only about money.” Anatoly Knyshov, a highly decorated test pilot with 41 years‘ experience, said: “Business managers run for profits and neglect safety.”
Russia‘s civil aviation is overseen by five government agencies, two of which both regulate the industry and investigate accidents, so that blame is invariably pinned on the crew rather than regulatory failures. After the 1991 Soviet collapse, 500 “babyflots” — offshoots of the Aeroflot monopoly — sprang up. Today there are 182, and the smaller ones are more likely to sacrifice safety to cut costs, critics say. Low pay is also a safety issue, said Miroslav Boichuk, chief of the Cockpit Personnel Association of Russia. Despite increases in recent years, average pilots‘ salaries of around $2,000 a month are far lower than in the West, and typically depend on how much time they spend flying — a practice, Boichuk said, that can exhaust them and impair their judgment.
Standards at state-run flight schools have declined steeply since the Soviet era. Rookie pilots such as Khodnevich — who was at the controls of flight 612 when it crashed — log about 60 flight hours during training, mostly in old propeller planes. That‘s less than half the minimum of 150 hours in modern planes required by Western flight schools. Only 20 percent of training planes are airworthy and instructors earn less than a tenth of what a commercial pilot earns in Russia. Student pilots, meanwhile, may be distracted from their studies by hunger. The daily food subsidy at government flight schools is $1.90. “Even a police dog gets more,” said Smirnov, the former deputy minister.
Critics say Russian pilots aren‘t being properly trained on the secondhand Boeings and Airbuses in increasing use here. Last year an Airbus A310 skidded off a runway in the Siberian city of Irkutsk and slammed into a row of garages, killing 125 people. The pilot had instinctively worked the controls as if he were flying a Soviet-designed plane, and accelerated instead of slowing down. One more issue, say critics, is a legal system that doesn‘t expose airlines to expensive lawsuits. “Forcing at least one carrier to pay sizable compensation would have a sobering impact on others,” said Vitaly Yusko, whose 10-year old daughter, a sister and her two sons died in the crash. “That would help end their feeling of total impunity.”