May 30, 2020
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The Sinking Babyflots

Struggling to survive, Aeroflot’s many offshoot airliners often compromise with safety norms

The Sinking Babyflots

FROM the break up of the airworthy Aeroflot to the spawning of 400-odd ‘babyflots’, it has been a sad downward trajectory of civil aviation in the Confederation of Independent States (CIS). Small airlines with poor maintenance, paucity of funds and ageing aircraft have been the bane of these babyflots. Kazakh Air, whose Ilyushin-76 cargo plane was involved in the mid-air collision near Delhi, is one such new-born airline struggling to survive.

In its earlier avatar, Kazakhstan Airlines was on the brink of bankruptcy with a debt of $140 million when it was liquidated in April. The airline soon reappeared, rechristened Kazakh Air, and is now Kazakhstan’s national carrier. The change of management did not help and the new airline continues to be dogged by the usual problems—frequent cancellations and, more dangerous, violation of safety norms. No wonder then that Kazakh Air has been blacklisted in Germany, Greece and Israel.

Air Traffic Control (ATC) officials in Delhi point out that they have repeatedly registered complaints against CIS airlines whose aircraft have had as many as six near-collisions in the last 18 months. Three of those involved Kazakhstan Airlines—February 28, May 27 and June 6 in 1995. Other near misses involved an Azerbaijan Airline aircraft (October, 1995), DVU Airline (April 5, 1995) and Uzbek Airline (September 6, 1996). The planes had deviated from flight levels assigned by the ATC.

It is not Kazakh Air alone which has been guilty. According to aviation industry sources, other airlines of the region—Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Kyrghistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Ukraine—are all in the same boat. Declining tourism, escalating cost of aviation fuel, ageing aircraft, rising maintenance costs and the volatile social, economic and political climate have turned these CIS carriers into losing propositions. And airline managements desperate to stay afloat have not shirked from cutting corners. Perhaps only the parent airline, Aeroflot, has managed to keep up with international standards.

No one in the Soviet aviation industry had foreseen that things would one day come to such a pass. Points out Moscow-based civil aviation expert, Mikhail Zimin: "Ten years ago nobody expected that Aeroflot’s unquestionable monopoly would come to an end. Indeed, this is what has happened in Russia after the collapse of the USSR. The break-up of the Aeroflot monolith into some 400 companies, many of them with little cash, hit the air industry. Since 1991, the Soviet air fleet has been plagued by chronic safety problems."

 To compound things, many of the new companies do not fly their own planes. They take aircraft on lease, many of which are not airworthy. Since risk factors are high, some of the airlines prefer to fly cargo and couriers used by the mafia to smuggle in consumer goods. The pilots involved in the Purulia arms drop were from a CIS country. A good number of chartered flights which come into Delhi from the CIS carry shoppers who are believed to be buying goods in bulk to trade in the black market back home. Says Irina Rosenberg, analyst with Itogi magazine: "One can’t rule out that some of the registered air companies can be used as undercover for some other business."

 An average of 7,500 aircraft fly Russian skies each day, with about 600 in the air at any one time. The state-owned Aeroflot is the largest carrier and transported 1.7 million passengers and 40,000 tonnes of mail and freight in the first half of 1996. Air Ukraine, again state-owned and the second largest carrier in the region, has also increased its volume of business by 15 per cent on its international routes this year. "We are looking to expand our fleet, improve services and increase the number of flights in line with our restructuring policy," says Valery Okulov, Aeroflot’s first deputy director.

However, while passenger traffic is increasing, safety norms lag far behind international standards. Passengers in the former Soviet Union are getting used to broken seats and can only keep their fingers crossed while flying the Tupolev, Ilyushin and Yakovlev planes. There is enough cause for worry. After a 20-year-old Khabarovsk Airlines’ Tu-154 crashed in the Russian Far East, the US Federal Aviation Authority said Russian airlines were "minimally meeting requirements" of the International Civil Aviation Organisation. Another warning came from the International Airline Passenger Association (IAPA) which told its members not to fly over the erstwhile Soviet Union. This was after 70 people died in March 1994 when an Aeroflot pilot allowed his teenage son to send an Airbus A-310 crashing into the Siberian taiga.

MOST pilots in Russia are ill-paid and blame airline managements for using outdated aircraft. The ageing Tupolov-154, which handles more than half of the passenger traffic in Russia, is the most trouble-prone carrier. The crash of a Tupolev- 154 on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen with more than 140 people aboard in August was the second in a year. In January 1994, a Russian Tu-154 crashed in Siberia, killing 124 people. In June the same year, another Tu-154 crashed, killing all 146 passengers.

Besides the poor condition of the aircraft, the split of Aeroflot has resulted in unhealthy competition, which has made many airlines neglect safety norms. Recently, passengers flying from Rimini (Italy) to Moscow by an Aeroflot flight had a taste of it. Initially, their plane was not allowed to land in Sheremetyevo-2 international airport due to some technical problems and landed in Vnukovo airport, the second largest airport in Moscow. However, the passengers were not allowed to get off the plane. After a harrowing two-and-a-half hours, they were told that the plane had to fly back to Sheremetyevo-2 terminal since Aeroflot had failed to reach an agreement on payment with Vnukovo airport representatives. As a result, three pensioners fainted and one suffered a heart attack. Valery, a 35-year-old businessman from Moscow and owner of a small boutique, drank a glass of vodka. When the plane safely landed in Sheremetyevo, he vowed never to risk flying Aeroflot. 

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