Russia paying a high price for low air-safety standards: Fears heightened by figures showing massive growth in plane crash deaths

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THIS WEEK'S horrific plane crash near Irkutsk and the publication of figures showing air deaths in Russia to be double those of the late 1980s have shocked would-be passengers in this vast country where distances are so great that flying is often the only realistic transport option. Concern centres on domestic flights. There is no suggestion that Aeroflot or its successors in the former Soviet republics have dropped their standards on international routes.

After the accident on Monday, when all 120 people on board a TU- 154 jet were killed, the chairman of the Intergovernmental Aviation Committee's Flight Safety Commission, Rudolf Teimurazov, released statistics showing that 222 people died in air crashes in Russia last year compared with 47 in 1987, 115 in 1988 and 98 in 1989. 'We now have levels twice as bad as in the late 80s and that is impermissible,' he said.

In an interview with the Independent, Yuri Seliverstov, the vice-president of an independent trade union called the Flight Personnel Association of Russia, said flying remained far safer than travelling by road, rail or boat even in chaotic post-Communist Russia, but . . . 'There are many buts and they all begin with a capital B'

The difficulties stem largely from the fact that since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Aeroflot, which was the biggest carrier in the world, has split into dozens of small private airlines. 'If you can call them airlines,' said Mr Seliverstov, himself a pilot at Moscow's Domodyedovo airport. 'Some of them have no more than one plane and two or three crews. These days anyone can set up an airline provided they have money. I could do it. Seliverstov Airlines. Why not?'

The airlines hire qualified pilots, usually former Aeroflot staff, and are obliged to obtain a certificate from the Ministry of Transport. But with spare parts in short supply, corners are sometimes cut on maintenance. 'The main aim is to make a profit. Other considerations are secondary,' said Mr Seliverstov.

Mr Seliverstov's trade union is angry that what he calls a 'mafia' of privileged officials has been quick to grab assets in the privatisation programme, leaving workers' collectives that wanted to run their own airlines out in the cold.

But he acknowledges this has been a trend in the economy as a whole and that such matters are not uppermost in passengers' minds.

Because Russian pilots rely less on computers and perform more manual tasks than their Western counterparts they are regarded as among the most skilled in the world. They are highly paid by Russian standards, earning from 400,000 to 2 million roubles ( pounds 270 to pounds 1,350 a month). 'There is nothing wrong with Russian pilots,' said Mr Seliverstov.

Likewise we need not worry about air traffic control despite the fact that the controllers have been involved in industrial disputes for higher pay. Mr Seliverstov denied reports that some pilots, particularly in anarchic parts of the Caucasus, have been flying without permission from ground control, creating a risk of mid-air collisions. 'No', he said, 'air traffic control is a unified organisation as it always was and discipline is strict.'

One of the main threats to safety comes from the overloading of aircraft. Passengers who have sat in dingy departure lounges while flights have been cancelled for lack of fuel, then finally boarded a plane to find suitcases blocking emergency exits and people standing in the aisle for take-off, have long suspected this.

Mr Seliverstov confirmed it. 'It's an open secret. If you want to get on a plane that's full, all you have to do is slip a bribe to the check-in clerk. The going rate is 20,000 roubles on top of the price of the ticket. And you're on, with your excess baggage if you have paid a bit more. Of course it's very dangerous.' And to illustrate how dangerous this is he puts an orange on an open box of chocolates and shows how it strains to lift off from my kitchen table.

Mr Seliverstov said pilots often did not know when their planes were overloaded as they were handed falsified information and had no means of checking. But he admitted that pilots sometimes put 'hares' (the slang expression for passengers who do not pay their fares) in the cockpit. I have travelled on a plane from Georgia, squashed in the the cockpit with the pilot, the navigator and four mandarin orange salesmen.

An official commission will issue a report on the causes of the tragedy in Siberia where the TU-154, belonging to Baikal Air, crashed after an engine caught fire. Baikal Air, named after Siberia's great lake, is one of Russia's numerous smaller airlines, operating mainly out of Siberia. Investigators are examining all plausible causes, including the possibility that the plane may have been overloaded.

(Photograph omitted)