Russia plane crash: Do the country's airlines still have a safety problem?

After another air tragedy involving a domestic flight in Russia, what is the aviation safety record in the world’s biggest country – and how concerned should travellers be?


Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Monday 06 May 2019 11:37
Burning Aeroflot plane lands at Moscow airport

What happened in this event?

Forty-one people have died aboard Aeroflot flight SU1492. The Sukhoi Superjet 100 took off from Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, destination Murmansk, at 18:03 local time [15:03 GMT]. Six minutes later the pilots transmitted a 7600 alert, signifying a failure of radio communications. Seventy-three passengers and five crew were on board.

They requested a return to the Moscow airport. After 23 minutes they “squawked 7700”, signifying an emergency. Four minutes later the aircraft made an emergency landing at the departure airport.

Video footage shows the aircraft landing at high speed and bouncing before the tail bursts into flame. Some of the passengers and crew evacuated the aircraft using emergency slides.

What is Aeroflot saying?

The airline said: “Malfunctions on board the aircraft were detected shortly after takeoff. The crew was forced to request an emergency return to the airport. The engines caught fire after landing at Sheremetyevo; the fire was swiftly extinguished.

“Passengers left the aircraft via the emergency exits. The aircraft was evacuated in 55 seconds, compared to the industry norm of 90 seconds.

“The crew did everything in its power to save passenger lives and provide emergency assistance to those involved. Tragically, they were unable to save all of those aboard.

“Aeroflot extends its deepest condolences to the family and loved ones of those who lost their lives. Our thoughts and hearts are with those who have suffered an unspeakable loss. We mourn with you.”

The airline is flying relatives of passengers to Moscow free of charge. It has set up a hotline for : 007 495 663 6394. The Emergencies Ministry of Russia hotline is 8800 775 1717.

How widely used is the aircraft, and what is its safety record?

The Sukhoi Superjet 100 is the most sophisticated Russian-built airliner, and the first to be sold in significant numbers in the west.

It is a regional jet, carrying fewer than 100 passengers and intended for routes such as the 918-mile link between Moscow and Murmansk.

Since it entered service in 2011, around 150 of the type have been delivered. A similar number are on order. But some of the customers – including to CityJet of Ireland and InterJet of Mexico – have stopped flying the aircraft type.

The only previous fatal accident involving the Sukhoi happened in 2012 in Indonesia. Forty-five people died when a demonstration flight with potential customers on board crashed into Mount Salak. The accident was blamed on pilot error.

What other recent accidents have there been involving Russian passenger planes?

In February 2018, Saratov Airlines flight 703 from Moscow’s Domodedovo airport crashed 50 miles south-east of the capital. All 65 passengers and six crew on the flight to the city of Orsk perished aboard the Antonov An148.

The airline had its operating certificate revoked after investigators found evidence of breaches of safety procedures.

On Christmas Day 2016, all 92 people aboard a Tupolev 154 passenger aircraft operated by the Russian Air Force crashed into the Black Sea shortly after take-off from Sochi airport in southern Russia. The plane was carrying the Alexandrov Ensemble, the official choir of the Russian Armed forces, to Syria.

The greatest loss of life involving a Russian airline took place on 31 October 2015, when an Airbus A321 belonging to Metrojet flying from Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt to St Petersburg crashed 23 minutes after take-off.

All 217 passengers and seven crew were killed. Investigators believe that a bomb was placed on board at Sharm el Sheikh. In response, the UK banned British airlines from flying to and from the Egyptian resort, a prohibition that remains in place.

Do these tragedies point to a fundamental safety issue with Russian aviation?

No. During the 20th century, crashes in the Soviet Union were sadly frequent events, often involving a combination of weather, relatively primitive aircraft engineering compared with prevailing western standards and sometimes poor decision-making by pilots.

The Russian climate is more extreme than that of any other nation. Operations continue year-round through the bitter winter, and summer storms add to the challenges.

The worst case of pilot error caused the loss of Aeroflot flight 593 from Moscow to Hong Kong in 1994, when the captain of the Airbus 310 allowed his 16-year-old son to sit in his seat. The teenager inadvertently disengaged the autopilot, starting a chain of events that cost the lives of all 75 people on board when the plane crashed in Siberia.

Other 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.

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Are some Russian airlines safer than others?

Aeroflot, the national carrier, and its rival S7 Airlines, are highly regarded. They are members of, respectively, the Skyteam and Oneworld alliances – which stipulate excellence safety standards. They fly mainly Airbus and Boeing jets. British Airways has “codeshare” arrangements with S7 Airlines, with the two cooperating on flights between Heathrow and a wide range of Russian destinations.

Smaller carriers engaged in the monumental task of binding together the world’s biggest nation may not have the same resources, and may also fly older aircraft – including some dating back to Soviet times.

It is easy to identify the aircraft planned to operate a specific flight, and to decide whether or not you are happy to fly on it. However, last-minute changes may be made to the aircraft type.

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