Dmitry Astakhov / AP
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visits the site of Wednesday's plane crash near Yaroslavl on Thursday.
MOSCOW – Wednesday’s plane crash in Yaroslavl, Russia, that killed 43 people, including almost all of an elite hockey team, has resurfaced questions about air safety here.
At least 119 people have died in plane crashes in Russia in 2011, according to Aviation-safety.net, which tracks air transport incidents, making Russia the leader in plane crash fatalities this year.
Most often, plane accidents in Russia involve smaller, regional companies which still often rely on Soviet-era or domestically produced planes. All the crashes this year involved Russian or Soviet-era aircraft.
After visiting the crash site today, President Dmitry Medvedev acknowledged Russia’s safety issues. “We cannot go on like this,” he said. “If we are unable to sort it out, we must buy foreign aircraft.’’
Russia’s largest, international airlines like Aeroflot, Transaero and S7 almost exclusively operate Western-produced aircraft and generally have good safety records. But smaller companies, often cash-strapped, don’t properly maintain their planes. In addition, a lack of oversight means pilots don’t always receive the training they should be getting.
“The number of air companies must be radically reduced and we need to do it quickly,” Medvedev said of the Wild West atmosphere that can exist in the Russian aviation industry.
It’s not only air safety that has reached crisis proportions. Lax oversight and corruption means Russia has high fatality rates from road and boat accidents as well as from fires. This summer, almost 140 people were killed in two boat incidents alone. “Every week, one, two, three tragedies – this is such a stupid tragedy,” said Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the Communist Party, at a memorial service in Yaroslavl.
Denis Sinyakov / Reuters
A woman grieves outside an ice hockey arena in Yaroslavl on Thursday.
Every plane accident is also a blow for Russia’s image as an emerging producer of high-technology items such as aircraft. While the accidents can often be blamed on maintenance or pilot error, and not the planes themselves, the words “Russian-made plane” increasingly reverberates badly with consumers.
A current example is the Sukhoi Superjet 100, the first completely new Russian civilian plane produced since the fall of the Soviet Union. It’s hard to attract new customers and be competitive while still trying to shed a reputation for untrustworthy planes.
As they have in the past, officials said all the right words Thursday about learning the proper lessons from yesterday’s tragedy. It still remains to be seen if this time those words translate into true action.