Airline industry under scrutiny

An investigation into the crash found the pilots weren't qualified to fly the aircraft. AP Photo/Misha Japaridze

MOSCOW -- A pilot with fake documents and a barely trained co-pilot got into a Yak-42 private jet to fly three-time Russian league champion team Lokomotiv from Yaroslavl to Minsk for their first game of the 2011-12 season. But before the plane could barely get off the ground, it crashed, killing 44 of 45 people on board.

The crash was one of the worst accidents in sports history, wiping out the entire team, including former NHL and international players, and a Canadian coach.

The tragedy provoked a worldwide outcry and Russia's poor air-safety record was brought under public scrutiny. Days after the crash, prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, who was president at the time, ordered an overhaul of the country's aviation system. President Vladimir Putin, who was prime minister at the time, ordered all Russian planes to be equipped with the latest technology.

A year later, a new Lokomotiv team is ready to go and Russian air travel has gotten safer, at least according to the Russian Federal Air Transport Agency.

Since last September, government has increased investigations and surprise inspections of airlines, and several small air carriers have been shut down, said Sergei Izlovskiy, the agency's spokesman. Guidelines dictating the minimum numbers of planes for commercial carriers have been established, and new bills and amendments to increase penalties for violations and increase the power of air-safety authorities have been created and are under review at the State Duma, or Russia's parliament. The agency's head, Alexander Neradko, proposed raising fines for pilots who violate aviation rules. This year, Russian airlines will need to comply with an International Aviation Transport Association safety audit.

"Our normative base aviation safety must not only comply with the minimal standards of the International civil aviation organization, but it must go above and beyond them," Neradko said at an industry conference on Aug. 16, according to Russian media reports. "I suggest thinking about stepping over these minimal standards and making our national standards in flight safety more severe."

Yet the tragedies have continued this year. In April, Russia suffered a major plane crash in Siberia that killed 31 and injured 12. In May, a new Russian Sukhoi Superjet crashed into an Indonesian mountain during its introductory flight, killing 45. In August, a Russian-made charter plane flown by a Russian pilot crashed in Sudan; 32 people died.

In 2011, Russia was ranked as the deadliest country for air travel, with nine crashes and 140 deaths.

The tragedies decreased the already dwindling trust in the domestic industry. Russia's Kontinental Hockey League lobbied the government in February for players to fly only on foreign-made planes, Russian media reported. A KHL official declined to comment, citing a busy travel schedule.

Pilot error, and not badly made planes, is the cause of about 80 percent of accidents, Yelena Glebova, the head of transport and customs regulations, said in a May interview published on the agency's website. The general prosecutor launched an investigation after the Siberia plane crash in April.

"Individuals that don't have the proper experience are allowed to fly," Glebova said. "Aviation schools don't have enough instructors, there aren't enough planes and flight simulators. A large part of the training equipment doesn't work."

The ongoing investigation into the Lokomotiv crash found that the charter-jet pilots were not qualified to fly that plane. The head pilot had false documents and the co-pilot had yet to finish his training, the investigation found. A criminal case has been opened against Yak Service official Vadim Timofeyev, Russia's Investigative Committee announced Thursday. He faces up to seven years in prison.

The lack of qualified pilots in the country forces airlines to use whoever is available, said Roman Gusarov, an editor of Avia.ru, a Russian aviation website.

"There is a serious deficit in qualified pilots in Russia," Gusarov said. "Just because a pilot has a pilot book doesn't mean he can fly a plane."

Airlines are reduced to stealing pilots from each other, Gusarov said. The skilled pilots get a high salary and might commit violations because they know that they won't be fired. For example, in many cases traces of alcohol have been found in the systems of pilots of crashed planes.

In the past several years, the government has been adding modern equipment to flight schools all over the country, and training guidelines are under review. This year, flight instructors' salaries have been doubled. Medvedev pledged last month to develop regional aviation.

But to many, the safety reforms are too little, too late and trust in Russian aviation remains low.

A scandal ensued when 24 passengers tried to leave a Transaero flight in March after a passenger noticed a hole in one of the wings. After a two-hour standoff, the crew finally let the disgruntled passengers disembark. The airline refunded only a small portion of the ticket cost.

Gusarov criticized some the reforms as unfounded.

"We've been talking about aviation safety for 10 years," Gusarov said. "But the government has done nothing until planes started falling from the sky."

Lokomotiv player Mikhail Balanin's widow, Yelena Balanina, said she does not trust the government investigation and believes that not much has changed in Russian air-travel safety. Balanina frequently flies around the country with her small daughter to visit friends. She said she uses only Russia's national carrier and largest airline, Aeroflot. It might cost more, but it's the only airline she trusts, she said.

"They say it's safer now, but that might be just talk," Balanina said. "I don't know how much of it is just words, and how much is the truth."