Russia's Air Industry Is A Victim Of Its Own Success

Four minutes after taking off from Moscow on Sunday afternoon, a Saratov Airlines Antonov An-148 headed for Orsk plummeted 6,000 feet into the ground, killing all 71 one people on board. In the aftermath, the images that appeared on television were all too familiar. Jagged metal scattered in a snowy field. Trees ripped apart, debris hanging from their branches. Police lines and disconsolate relatives. Roses placed beneath the departures screen at Moscow's Domodedovo airport.

On Monday, Russia's investigative committee said that the plane had not broken up or caught fire before it dropped from the sky, and that an “explosion occurred after the plane fell.” The crash site was relatively compact. All this suggested that the latest tragedy was not due to terrorism, unlike the two planes brought down by suicide bombers in 2004, or the 2015 Sharm El Sheikh disaster. Instead, the investigative committee said it suspected the “airline's activities, the technical condition of the aircraft, the level of the pilots' professional preparedness, [and] whether they underwent the necessary training.” If a poorly trained crew was the cause, it wouldn't be the first time.


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Plane crashes are a recurring nightmare for Russia, which earned the dubious distinction from the Aviation Safety Network of being the deadliest place to fly in 2011. That was the year that a Yakovlev Yak-42 carrying the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey team botched its takeoff and slammed into a river bank, killing all 45 people on board except a flight engineer. Also in that year, an An-148 caught fire and broke up during a test flight after a gauge failed and the pilots pushed it past its maximum speed. Even after then-president Dmitry Medvedev called for a drastic reduction in the number of airlines and more testing of pilots, the tragedies continued. In 2012, 33 people died after a UTAir ATR-72 crashed in Tyumen. In 2016, a defense ministry passenger airliner heading for Russia's airbase in Syria plunged into the Black Sea, killing 92 people including most of the Red Army choir. And so on.

Why, according to the most recently available data, is flying in Russia four times deadlier than the world average? In large part, the air industry here is a victim of its own success: As the number of passengers has skyrocketed in recent years, airlines in Russia have struggled to find enough qualified personnel. The result, experts have said, is more under-trained, inexperienced and overconfident pilots.

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