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Russia: Plane Manufacturer 'Celebrates' 75th Anniversary

Moscow, 23 October 1997 (RFE/RL) - Starved for orders for new planes, Russia's leading passenger plane maker, Tupolev, this week celebrates its 75th anniversary.

Tupolev spokesman Sergei Kurayev told RFE/RL this week in Moscow that the immediate plans focus on the development of several new planes, including a 100-seat long range model (1,800 kilometers), a 50-seat plane for medium-to-short-range flights, and a cargo plane capable of carrying 35 tons up to 3,000 kilometers. Design of the planes has already been completed, but none has passed flight tests.

Also on the list of Tupolev's projects is cooperation with American plane makers to design a next-generation supersonic passenger plane. The U.S. space agency, NASA, is providing most of the funding for this project. Tupolev is also involved in producing parts for a new plane being developed by Airbus.

But the rest of Tupolev's plans suffer from poor funding. This is the current fate of a company, which has designed more than 300 aircraft, including space craft, strategic bombers, and even propeller-driven sleds. Almost all this design work was done in the Soviet era.

Now, Tupolev is struggling to find work -- although about 70 percent of more than 8,000 passenger and cargo planes, operated by about 300 Russian companies -- will have to be decommissioned soon due to age. Regional Russian airports have been described as "parking lots," with hundreds of aircrafts waiting for repairs at any given time. Pilots are aging too. Since airlines cannot afford to train new pilots, more than 180 pilots over the age of 60 are still flying passenger planes in Russia, in defiance of international standards.

Most of the planes that need replacing belong to independent companies that emerged from the break-up of the national flag-carrier Aeroflot. These "babyflots," as they are known, simply cannot afford new, replacement planes. They have turned to leasing, and Tupolev has jumped into that market.

Kurayev tells RFE/RL that "leasing is one of the main sources of income for us now." But, Tupolev now has to compete on the leasing market with American and European aircraft makers.

This week the Canadian newspapaer Toronto Globe and Mail reported that Aeroflot is trying to improve its image by introducing Western-style service, a telephone hotline for complaints, and an ambitious advertising campaign.

But the Moscow-based correspondent for the publication "Flight International," Aleksandr Velevich tells RFE/RL that he believes Tupolev's future will be in doubt untill it consolidates. Velevich notes that even some of the large Western planemakers are merging in order to survive in the highly competitive international airline market.