Bad year for Russian crashes

A policeman stands at the site of a plane crash outside Petrozavodsk A plane crash in Petrozavodsk in June killed 44 people

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The crash of a plane carrying the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl ice hockey team is the latest in an extraordinary number of air accidents in Russia this year.

Air safety has been notoriously bad in Russia - but it had seemed to be improving.

Since the beginning of the year at least 15 Russian planes have crashed, killing 120 people - and these figures only relate to civilian flights.

That is a 53% increase in crashes, and a fourfold increase in deaths, compared to the same period last year, according to Russia's deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov.

The first accident of 2011 happened as early as News Year's Day, when a Tupolev 154 airliner operated by Kogalymavia burned on the ground at the airport in Surgut, central Russia.

In April, President Dmitry Medvedev criticised the aircraft industry and called for the updating of the country's civilian fleet.

Later, he urged the ministry of transport to consider withdrawing dated Tupolev-134 and Antonov-24 planes from use in regular passenger flights.

Experts say many other types of old Soviet aircraft should also be withdrawn from use. Among those are Tupolev-154, Antonov-12 and Mi-8.

One recently crashed Mi-8 helicopter had been in operation since 1977. At the time of the disaster it had not reached its official end of service.

On the other hand, experts say, planes are usually built to last for several decades, and most crashes are caused by human error.

Maintenance issues

"You can fly a plane even if it's 40 years old," says veteran Soviet pilot Oleg Smirnov. "As long as you maintain it properly."

The majority of Russian air disasters, Mr Smirnov believes, happen because airlines' determination to cut costs.

Russia's Federal Air Transport Agency has said that, from 1 January 2012, only airlines operating 10 or more planes will be allowed to operate long-distance passenger flights. In 2013 that number is to double.

Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov has welcomed the proposal.

President Medvedev agrees as well. "The situation with civilian aircraft industry has to change dramatically," he said, speaking in Yaroslavl on Wednesday.

But the pilot Oleg Smirvov is convinced that simply forcing the air companies to become bigger is not enough to ensure the safety of flights. "Large carriers also have crashes," he points out.

Mr Smirnov suggests the government should enforce strict regulations on the carriers "so they can't afford to make money by sparing people's lives".

As for its aircraft fleet, Russia has recently been making an effort to update it.

The Russian super jet RRJ-100 is about to go into mass production, as well as the cargo planes An-148 and An-158, made as a joint effort by Russia and Ukraine.

But the majority of planes operated by Russian airliners are still the old vehicles built in Soviet times, as well as dated foreign liners.

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