After the world’s best ever year for aviation safety, the grim statistics of history indicated a fair chance that the next major fatal accident would involve a Russian airline.
So it proved, with Saratov Airlines flight 703 making a routine take off from Moscow’s Domodedovo airport, destination Orsk, but crashing 50 miles south-east of the capital with the loss of 65 passengers and six crew.
The scale of concern about aviation safety in Russia and its neighbours becomes clear when you consult the respected aviation safety website, Airsafe.com. It records fatal crashes involving passenger planes since the start of the Jumbo jet era in January 1970.
The number of European airlines without loss of life reassuringly exceeds those that have suffered a fatal crash. But there is a special page for the region that has suffered more than 40 losses since 1990 alone: the former Soviet Union.
The chronology of tragedy mostly involves Russian airlines, and contains a number of recurrent themes. The leading cause of fatal accidents appears to be a combination of severe weather and poor pilot decision-making.
The Russian climate is more extreme than that of any other nation; today, in the north-east Siberian city of Yakutsk, the highest the temperature climbed was minus 30C. Operations continue year-round through the winter, and in summer powerful storms add to the challenges.
Technical failures are also more common with ageing aircraft designed in the Soviet era. When Aeroflot was a pan-USSR airline and the biggest carrier in the world, the workhorse was the Tupolev 154. Even though it has been progressively modernised, the three-engined jet is still unsophisticated compared with contemporary Western aircraft, and dozens have crashed.
One example of formidably good flying, though, involved a Tu154 belonging to Alrosa Mirny Air Enterprise; in 2010, it suffered a complete systems failure at almost 35,000 feet, but landed without loss of life on an abandoned runway.
At the other extreme, pilot irresponsibility caused the loss of Aeroflot flight 593 from Moscow to Hong Kong in 1994, when the Airbus captain allowed his 16-year-old son to sit in his seat. The teenager inadvertently disengaged the autopilot, and a series of subsequent errors took the lives of all 75 people on board when the Airbus A310 crashed in Siberia.
Some losses have been due to terrorism, including the dreadful night of 24 August 2008 when two successive planes leaving Moscow Domodedovo exploded in flight. All 87 passenger and crew died.
The highest loss of life took place on 31 October 2015, when a Metrojet Airbus A321 crashed in the Sinai desert shortly after take-off from Sharm el Sheikh. All 224 passengers and crew on the charter flight to St Petersburg died.
It is widely believed that the plane was downed by a bomb placed on board at the Egyptian airport. Shortly afterwards, the UK imposed a ban on British aircraft flying to Sharm el Sheikh, which continues in force.
Aviation safety requires the alignment of security, training, culture and regulation. Russia is improving, with Aeroflot and S7 Airlines achieving global standards; their alliances, Skyteam and Oneworld insist upon it. But smaller carriers engaged in the monumental task of binding together the world’s biggest nation do not have the same reserves of constant vigilance.
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies