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Russia: Aviation Experts Rate Air Safety

By Stephanie Baker and Jeremy Bransten

Moscow, 15 November 1996 (RFE/RL) -- This week's mid-air collision over India between a Saudi Arabian Boeing 747 and a Kazakhstan Airways Il-76 cargo plane has focused world attention on air safety, and in particular on the safety of aircraft, pilots and air traffic control in Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

When the Soviet Union collapsed five years ago, Aeroflot, the monopoly state airline, also split into more than 400 companies and charter carriers. Valentin Dudin, a grizzled inspector who has worked for Russia's air safety office for over 20 years, says the profit motive for most of these airlines has become king.

"Earlier, at Aeroflot," says Dudin, "there was a saying: efficiency, regularity and safety. Now, out of this triad, only efficiency remains. And efficiency in this context means only one thing: cutting costs and making as much money as possible."

Dudin currently holds two jobs. He is a senior safety inspector for Russia's Federal Aviation Service (FAS) and also an expert with the independent Society for Air Safety Investigation. That Russian society is now affiliated with the International Society for Air Safety Investigation, a world body based in Toronto, Canada.

Dudin says there are two main civil aviation watchdogs in Russia: the FAS and the Interstate Aviation Committee (MAK). The FAS investigates air crashes and safety violations which occur within Russia while the MAK looks into incidents which occur within the Commonwealth of Independent States or abroad, when they involve CIS aircraft.

When studying air safety in Russia and the CIS, Dudin says it is important to differentiate between major air crashes and smaller accidents involving commuter or propeller planes. Dudin says the level of major air crashes, meaning those involving large and mid-sized jet aircraft, has stayed constant over the past few years at two to three per year.

The ten or so other crashes which have occurred in Russia this year, he points out, should be compared to commuter plane and business jet accidents in Europe and the United States. Dudin says accidents involving these types of planes occur with unfortunate regularity even in the United States, though they tend to be underreported. By contrast, says Dudin, "whenever a crop duster falls in Russia, it is counted as another major air crash."

Dudin notes that an air crash always occurs due to a coincidence of factors. The crash is the end product of a chain reaction. In air safety, three factors contribute to accidents:

The plane's instrumentation The crew The environment (including weather conditions, air traffic controllers etc...)

In crashes all over the world, on average, instrument failure contributes to 20 percent of catastrophes, the environment accounts for 10 to 15 percent of crashes and the crew accounts for 65 to 70 percent of incidents. The question when investigating an accident, according to Dudin, must therefore be not "who is at fault," but "who did what when?"

Dudin acknowledges that air safety conditions are far from ideal in Russia and the CIS. He says that as in almost every sector, "there are good rules on the books but they can't always be implemented given the resources at our disposal." The FAS, which is responsible for the inspection of all airlines in Russia, is short of full time safety inspectors. The experts they do have often perform two or three separate tasks. Some of them even pilot planes themselves.

Dudin also says that more than half the ground control and radar facilities in Russia need upgrading, especially on the trans-Siberian route, which handles a lot of important foreign traffic flying between Asia and Europe. It is over Eastern Siberia, according to Dudin, that the risk of the world's next mid-air collision is greatest.

Dennis Cooper, a Moscow-based representative of the U.S. government's Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), works with the FAS to help modernize Russia's air safety and regulatory system. He told RFE/RL that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia was faced with the task of rebuilding its system of overseeing airline safety in the context of a market economy.

Cooper says U.S. aviation officials produced a report in 1994 which recommended that Russia adopt certain changes, such as hiring more airline inspectors and providing more financial support for overseeing airline safety.

Cooper says Russian authorities are addressing the report's recommendations, and he notes that improvements had been made. He says aviation authorities had developed new manuals that spell out regulations for both airlines and inspectors, and had done so quickly despite limited resources.

Cooper says one of the challenges facing Russia is keeping the federal aviation agencies sufficiently funded in order to retain the highly trained people who work there.

Both Dudin and Cooper say the creation of the FAS six months ago was a positive step which could strengthen safety controls in Russia. But they remain optimistic, given Russian and CIS pilots' high degree of competence and experience in flying all over this vast country under all types of conditions. And given the financial strains and pressures affecting the CIS and Russia, many say it is remarkable to what degree safety and efficiency has been retained.