PRAGUE, 18 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- After seven years of watching Russia's casual air safety procedures with concern -- and sometimes awe -- U.S. officials say they are close to approving a bilateral Russian-U.S. air safety agreement.
That's important to both countries, whose passenger and cargo aircraft travel back and forth, land at each other's international airports, and fly through each other's air space.
Actually, U.S. Federal Aviation Administration officials have been in discussions in Moscow for 20 years.
But a lot has happened since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. In commercial aviation, one major occurrence was the splitting of the Soviet carrier Aeroflot, the world's largest airline, into 400 struggling little airline companies.
There was, of course, no way to be sure under the old, secretive Soviet system, but over the years Aeroflot reported a safety record in line with international averages.
With the breakup of Aeroflot, however, air safety declined precipitously. Many of the new companies lacked capital, could not buy new aircraft, failed to maintain adequately the airplanes they had, and allowed incidences of overloading that would have been unthinkable in the West. There were reports from Western travelers of local airlines taking off with passengers and loose packages in the aisles, and even the toilet compartments.
The head of Russia's Federal Aviation Department, Gennady Zaitsev, said last month, however, he found proof in last year's record of improved air safety on Russian civilian flights. Zaitsev told ITAR-Tass that in 1997, Russian civil aviation experienced 35 air crashes, ten with fatalities. Eighty people died. That was fewer than half the number killed in '96, he said.
A cargo jet crashed in Irkutsk, Siberia in December killing 68 people, mostly local residents on the ground, but that was a military accident, and the fatalities aren't included in civil statistics.
After the Irkutsk crash, Russian President Boris Yeltsin ordered aides to draft a decree on enhancing flight safety in Russia. One result is a proposal to reform the civil aviation system by slashing by a third the number of air carriers, upgrading their fleets, and, possibly, combining in a single ministry aviation oversight responsibilities now spread over half a dozen government agencies.
Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, just back from a meeting in Washington of the Gore-Chernomyrin Commission, is to chair a regular government meeting tomorrow at which these proposals are to be discussed.
It was at the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission meeting that the United States and Russia agreed to start the final phase of writing a bilateral agreement on civil aviation safety. Formally the U.S.-Russian Commission on Economic and Technical Cooperation, co-chaired by Chernomyrdin and U.S. Vice President Al Gore, the commission held its 10th meeting for two days last week.
Why this flurry of activity on aviation safety agreements now?
It's not really a flurry says the U.S. Federal Aviation Agency's Dennis Cooper, in a telephone interview with RFE/RL.
In Cooper's words: "I'd call it a lot of still ongoing activity. Weve been engaged with the Russians for over seven years in, in both the area of aircraft certification and air traffic control as well as safety oversight of our airlines that fly to each other's countries."
Cooper, based in Brussels, is the FAA's senior representative to Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States.
What actually was decided at the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission meeting was to move the U.S.-Russia aviation interaction from talks, information-sharing and discussions to formal negotiations.
Cooper says there's reason to expect a completed bilateral agreement on air safety to be ready before fall.
As he puts it: "We've been working closely with all elements of the Russian -- and before that the Soviet Union -- aircraft certification process, both the continued air worthiness portion of it as well as the aircraft-type certification portion of it. And now we are confident that we understand each other's processes very well and that we can apply each other's rules and regulations when we type-certificate our respective aircraft or their respective aircraft."
Cooper says: "So consequently, because we are confident of that, we're going to go forward. We're confident that by the summer those negotiations will be complete and we can conclude the bilateral air safety agreement."