Annals of Russia’s Unfriendly Skies

The Moscow Times reports that Russians are no more eager to be pilots in Russia’s unfriendly skies than they are to be passengers:

With its neat rows of houses surrounded by lush greenery, the state-run Sasovo flight school is a bucolic place, graduating up to 300 pilots a year in Soviet times. Today, students occupy only two out of the six dormitory buildings, and the graduating class this spring will total about 40.

A growing shortage of pilots, one of the industry’s most pressing problems before the economic crisis, has been masked partially by falling passenger numbers. But aviation experts expect it to re=-emerge in full force.  The average age of a Russian pilot is 50, and 900 pilots are forced to quit every year after failing to pass strict medical tests, according to Federal Aviation Agency statistics. The government has launched a program that aims to churn out 1,000 new pilots nationwide every year, but even that measure will not fill the gap overnight. Meanwhile, the fallout of last year’s high jet fuel prices and the collapse of the AiRUnion coalition of airlines are still ricocheting through the industry, exasperating the situation both for pilots and those who hire them.

“If a house has not been renovated in 15 years, a restart of financing can only be used for repairs,” said Sasovo director Yevgeny Smolnikov, sitting in his spacious office decorated with rural Russian landscapes and a portrait of President Dmitry Medvedev above his desk.

“Government support has been increasing for the past three years, but the assistance should have come 10 years ago,” he said. “We are still lagging behind.”

In the blackest period of the flight school’s history, the 1990s, graduates could not receive their pilot’s license for years. To become pilots, students had to accumulate 60 flight hours, but the school did not have enough fuel to fly its planes. Former students recall taking apart old aircraft to sell as scrap metal in order to pay for fuel and get enough flight hours to graduate.

One such student, Alexei, eventually gave up and dropped out. Now 31 and still wanting to fly, he is getting a commercial pilot license through expensive private lessons. He is too old to apply to state flight schools.

“In a state school, you are completely dependent on whether the government chooses to pay for fuel and have no way to predict or influence the process,” he said in an e-mail when contacted though a pilots forum. “I chose the more expensive but more reliable way.”

High-Flying Plans

Those days are behind Sasovo, Smolnikov said, and all pilots who have graduated over the past four years had the necessary 60 flight hours. The school is also receiving 19 new planes this year, as well as flight simulators, and the airfield is to be renovated in 2010.

It is also increasing admissions to meet government targets. Still, because the school had to catch up on flight training for past graduates, it has not been able to admit many new students.

The government’s target of 1,000 new pilots a year will only be reached in about five years, provided that state financing remains stable, Smolnikov said, adding that about 70 percent of applicants don’t even pass the medical check — an indication that Russia’s youth today is not as healthy as their Soviet peers were.

There are six state schools in Russia that train pilots for civil aviation. Two of them have the status of university-level institutions, and four, including Sasovo, are academies.

The government has promised 34.3 billion rubles (about $1 billion) to flight schools through 2015, and the bulk of the money has been earmarked for new planes, airfields and flight simulators.

Flight instructors, however, seem to have gotten the short end of the stick. Some 30 percent to 40 percent of flight school instructors are over 60, and there is a severe shortage of candidates to fill their positions when they retire, Federal Aviation Agency chief Gennady Kurzenkov said at an industry meeting in December.

Sasovo has only 66 percent of the flight instructors it needs, said director Smolnikov.

Sasovo instructors say the reason for this is simple — commercial pilots earn 10 times more than instructors. But experienced pilots like Fyodor Lyashchenko said they are not leaving the school because they enjoy its tight-knit community and the opportunity to teach.

“Flight instructors get paid about 10,000 rubles” a month, he said. “Every year there are fewer and fewer of us because of so-called natural selection: age and health.”

The situation is even worse with plane mechanics, whose starting salary is only 3,500 rubles. So even though the government is ready to allocate 18 million rubles to buy each new Yak trainer plane, soon there may not be anyone to look after them. Sasovo mechanics currently have to maintain two or three planes simultaneously, a nearly impossible feat now that the school’s flight season has started in earnest after the snowy winter months.

Dissatisfied Pilots

Commercial pilots who have jobs with major Russian airlines are also not entirely satisfied with their working conditions. Salaries have increased by 150 percent on average since 2006, so pilots are no longer leaving Russia in droves to work for foreign airlines, said Miroslav Boichuk, head of the Cockpit Personnel Association of Russia, the pilots’ trade union. But the pilot shortage is pushing airlines to extend working hours and lobby for a change in legislation that sets working conditions.

It is also increasing admissions to meet government targets. Still, because the school had to catch up on flight training for past graduates, it has not been able to admit many new students.

The government’s target of 1,000 new pilots a year will only be reached in about five years, provided that state financing remains stable, Smolnikov said, adding that about 70 percent of applicants don’t even pass the medical check — an indication that Russia’s youth today is not as healthy as their Soviet peers were.

There are six state schools in Russia that train pilots for civil aviation. Two of them have the status of university-level institutions, and four, including Sasovo, are academies.

The government has promised 34.3 billion rubles (about $1 billion) to flight schools through 2015, and the bulk of the money has been earmarked for new planes, airfields and flight simulators.

Flight instructors, however, seem to have gotten the short end of the stick. Some 30 percent to 40 percent of flight school instructors are over 60, and there is a severe shortage of candidates to fill their positions when they retire, Federal Aviation Agency chief Gennady Kurzenkov said at an industry meeting in December.

Sasovo has only 66 percent of the flight instructors it needs, said director Smolnikov.

Sasovo instructors say the reason for this is simple — commercial pilots earn 10 times more than instructors. But experienced pilots like Fyodor Lyashchenko said they are not leaving the school because they enjoy its tight-knit community and the opportunity to teach.

“Flight instructors get paid about 10,000 rubles” a month, he said. “Every year there are fewer and fewer of us because of so-called natural selection: age and health.”

The situation is even worse with plane mechanics, whose starting salary is only 3,500 rubles. So even though the government is ready to allocate 18 million rubles to buy each new Yak trainer plane, soon there may not be anyone to look after them. Sasovo mechanics currently have to maintain two or three planes simultaneously, a nearly impossible feat now that the school’s flight season has started in earnest after the snowy winter months.

Dissatisfied Pilots

Commercial pilots who have jobs with major Russian airlines are also not entirely satisfied with their working conditions. Salaries have increased by 150 percent on average since 2006, so pilots are no longer leaving Russia in droves to work for foreign airlines, said Miroslav Boichuk, head of the Cockpit Personnel Association of Russia, the pilots’ trade union. But the pilot shortage is pushing airlines to extend working hours and lobby for a change in legislation that sets working conditions.

2 responses to “Annals of Russia’s Unfriendly Skies

  1. Well considering they can’t get enough combat pilots either.
    Anyway, Russians never were very good pilots, not enough ability to think for themselves, always needing “higher authority” to tell them what to do.
    Just look at the massive kill/loss ratio the Germans achieved in WW2, or the US pilots massacring Russian instructors in Korea.

  2. In the US for many years the problem was keeping military pilots in the military. Airlines paid far more (until they fell on hard times) and there was always a good supply of 2-4,000 hour pilots.

    Can’t the Russian airlines attract military pilots? They would have to brush up on their English a bit. Pay levels probably are the biggest determinate and maybe that’s the problem.

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