The European Union has formally notified Pulkovo Aviation Enterprise that it is considering adding the St. Petersburg-based airline to its blacklist of carriers banned for safety reasons.
The decision will be made on October 4 at an EU meeting to update its blacklist, which was launched in March and so far counts more than 90 carriers.
A decision to add Pulkovo would make it the first Russian airline to be banned from flying to the EU.
Concerns Over Crash
The ban threat is widely believed to have been prompted by the crash of a Pulkovo-operated passenger jet over Ukraine in August in which all 170 passengers and crew onboard were killed.
Pulkovo airlines had recorded just one serious accident prior to that crash, and the air carrier was considered one of Russia's safest.
However, the organization whose reports form the basis for the EU blacklist, the European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC), has registered a number of safety failings by Pulkovo.
Gennady Boldyrev, Pulkovo's acting director general, recently told reporters that the airline had received 20 warnings from the ECAC over the past year. He said the ECAC has complained that the technical documentation used by Russian airlines does not match EU standards, and that other Russian carriers have received similar complaints.
But Olivier Ardouin, an integration officer for the ECAC, says many of the flaws his organization attributed to Pulkovo aircraft were obvious.
"These are relatively visible defects, since the controls are short and external. We don't dismantle the aircraft. These controls last between half an hour and one hour," Ardouin said. "[The defects] include equipment that should be on board but is not, or logbooks that are missing. Before takeoff, air carriers have to control the plane's gravity center. Not doing this calculation is dangerous, and it is also dangerous when the pilots' licenses are not updated."
Pulkovo Not Alone
Aleksandr Velovich, a Moscow-based aviation consultant and a former engineer at the Mikoyan design bureau, says the EU's message to Pulkovo extends to all Russian airlines.
"The European Union is giving a sign to the whole of Russia's air-transportation sector that the state of flight security in Russia doesn't quite meet the standards that the European Union requests from airlines," Velovich said. "Pulkovo is neither better nor worse than any other leading Russian carrier. The threats to include it [in the blacklist] are due to this terrible catastrophe. But this catastrophe could have happened to another airline."
Pulkovo is Russia's third-largest passenger carrier. But an EU ban could bankrupt the company, which draws 70 percent of its revenues from international flights.
Pulkovo's press service declined to comment.
In Russia, the EU's warning has prompted speculation that Brussels, under the cover of security concerns, could be trying to get rid of a competitor on the St. Petersburg route.
But a number of aviation experts dismiss this possibility.
"Air travel between Russia and European countries is regulated by bilateral intergovernmental agreements," said Aleksei Komarov, editor in chief of Russia's "Air Transport Observer" magazine. "These stipulate the number of participants and flights from each country. If Pulkovo suspends its flights to European countries, Russia has the right to replace Pulkovo by other airlines for these destinations. So European airlines are unlikely to draw profit from Pulkovo's ousting from the market."
Some critics also see the threats against Pulkovo as an attempt to pressure Russia into reducing the fees it charges foreign airlines for flying over the country.
Russia has consistently refused to lower these fees.
But this speculation too finds little support among aviation experts.
"This opinion certainly exists. But the fee for flying over Russian territory goes back to Soviet times," Velovich said. "The profit goes to Aeroflot, the heir of the Soviet Union's civil aviation, and not to Pulkovo. Besides, we are talking of human lives, and I don't think the European Union is so cynical as to use this [crash] to negotiate a reduction of the fee to fly over Russian territory."
Velovich predicts that the EU will eventually decide against adding Pulkovo airlines to its blacklist.
Besides, Pulkovo airlines is already poised to disappear from the aviation market.
Pulkovo is due to merge with and adopt the name of another Russian carrier, Rossia.