A study released this week by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) shows that Russia and other former Soviet countries are the world's most dangerous places for air travel.
The Geneva-based organization estimates that the accident rate for these countries, grouped together in the study, was 8.6 per 1 million flights last year. This is twice the rate of Africa and 13 times the global average for 2006, which was the safest year on record worldwide. Problem Recognized
The study named bad weather, miscommunication, and poor crew training as the main factors causing accidents.
Anthony Concil, the IATA's spokesman, says these worrying findings prompted the organization in January to approach Russian Transportation Minister Igor Levitin.
"Safety has been a concern in Russia for some time, particularly as carriers are using more Western equipment and operating fleets that are partly Western, partly Eastern." -- IATA spokesman
"We recognized as we were going through last year that there is a problem in Russia, that the numbers were way beyond what the global averages were," Concil says. "That triggered a signal to say that we need to do something. We approached it at the highest level, with the minister."
The IATA has since launched a program in Russia called "Partnership for Safety", working with carriers and authorities to improve safety standards.
Vadim Bazykin, a famous Russian test pilot, says the situation in Russia is not as alarming as claimed by the IATA. But he admits that Russia's aviation sector is in dire need of reform.
The remains of an Airbus A-310 that crashed in Irkutsk in July, 2006 (epa)
"I think the cause is a deterioration of methodical staff policy, a lax approach, for example, to compulsory training. In Russia, people come [for training], they have a chat, and that's it," Bazykin says. "We don't have adequate trainers. Russia's other weak spot is that everything is done on the basis of friendship. We must take the firm decision that at work, there are no friends. A person who has committed a violation must be heavily fined the first time. The second time, this person must be dismissed."
Russia saw a series of deadly plane crashes in 2006.
In July, more than 120 people died when a passenger jet skidded off a runway and burst into flames in the Siberian city of Irkutsk. And in August, a Russian Tupolev-154 jet crashed in Ukraine, killing all 170 people on board. Upgrades Not A Cure-All
Accidents in Russia are often blamed on the country's aging, Soviet-era jets.
But the IATA's Concil says that Russia's efforts to upgrade its fleet are in fact compounding risks.
"Safety has been a concern in Russia for some time, particularly as carriers are using more Western equipment and operating fleets that are partly Western, partly Eastern," Concil says. "All of that brings the possibility for safety issues to emerge."
Despite the poor safety rates in the IATA study, Bazykin says some former Soviet countries have made strides in bringing their aviation industries in line with international standards.
"Kazakhstan has the finest aviation [in the CIS], because it's the first country where it was taken over by the British," Bazykin says. "It's a pleasure to watch, it makes one envious. Ukraine also gets positive reviews."
The other major plane crash in the CIS last year took place in Russia in May.
An Airbus A-320 operated by Armavia, Armenia's leading carrier, dropped into the Black Sea near the resort of Sochi, killing all 113 people on board.