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Russia: Stricter Standards For World's Airliners Could Spell Trouble For Soviet-Built Jets

Stricter noise pollution standards for commercial aircraft, established by the International Civil Aviation Organization, are due to come into effect worldwide on 1 April. Most industrialized countries, including all EU states, will enforce the new rules and the vast majority of airliners flying in those states already meet the more stringent requirements. But some Eastern European countries will face a problem, especially Russia. Eighty percent of its civilian aircraft fall short of the standards, meaning it will not be able to apply the new rules for domestic flights. Even more worrisome for Moscow is the fact that Russia could find many of its planes banned from foreign skies.

Prague, 14 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Although stricter noise-level standards for civilian aircraft -- which are due to come into effect on 1 April -- are often believed to stem from EU legislation, the rules were in fact originated by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and are meant to be applied globally. David Learmount, of "Flight International" magazine, tells RFE/RL this is an important distinction to make.

"It's not EU-only, this is world. This is a ruling set by the International Civil Aviation Organization, which is a branch of the United Nations."

The ICAO, established in 1944 by the Chicago Convention, is the acknowledged arbiter of standards for international civil aviation. Most of the world's countries with civil aviation fleets are members, including Russia and other Soviet successor states.

The stricter noise pollution standards -- known in the industry as "stage 3 requirements" were discussed for many years before being agreed by ICAO members. Their intended implementation was announced almost a decade ago, meaning there is little sympathy -- especially in Western Europe -- for laggards who now find their commercial fleets unprepared.

"This ruling has been coming for 8 years. It's been in the making since 1972. Russia has been fiercely lobbying to get an extension, but most Western European countries are not inclined to let them have it."

Indeed, Russian Transport Minister Sergei Frank traveled to Brussels at the end of last month for talks with EU officials on obtaining such an extension. Frank said enforcement of the new rules could force Russia to cancel 11,000 flights in 2002, representing some 12 percent of the country's passenger traffic. But he was rebuffed.

Moscow-based aviation analyst Vladimir Kornozov tells RFE/RL that amid all the political and economic upheaval of the past decade, Russia paid little attention to the impending change in rules, hoping to finagle an exemption at the last minute.

"Quite simply, Russia has had many problems and the problems of new noise requirements has not been the biggest one, let's say. So the people in the corridors of power have spent their time solving other problems."

The result is that as of 1 April, more than three-quarters (1,600) of Russia's 2,000 civilian airliners will not meet stage 3 requirements. Soviet-built Tupolev 134s, all Tupolev 154s except for the modified 154M types, all long-range Ilyushin-62s, wide-body Ilyushin-86s, and most cargo Ilyushin-76s fail to pass muster. But although these aircraft represent 80 percent of the country's fleet, Kornozov says the vast majority of scheduled international flights should not be affected.

"The bulk of regular flights -- I mean flights on the timetable -- those flights are served by Aeroflot, Pulkovo, [and] other major airlines, and they have enough aircraft meeting stage 3 requirements. The real effect will be on charter flights in the interest of tourist companies and those are largely flown by such big aircraft as the Ilyushin-86, which doesn't fit into the new situation."

Aeroflot over the past few years has been leasing Western planes which meet stage 3 requirements -- such as Airbus A310s and Boeing 767s -- for its more prestigious international routes. This has proven more economical than fitting Soviet-built planes with quieter engines.

Other airlines in the region which primarily use Soviet-built aircraft, such as Ukraine's AeroSvit or Moldova's Air Moldova International, also operate Western planes to cities like Frankfurt or London. However, some less-traveled routes could be affected by the changeover. Already, Aeroflot has announced its intention to drop flights to Dublin and Ljubljana if the new rules are enforced, as it has no substitute planes to replace the Tupolev-134s currently serving the route.

One European flag carrier stands out in that it has no Western aircraft in its fleet. Belarus's national airline, Belavia, only uses Soviet-built planes. Of those, only one aircraft -- a Tupolev-154M -- meets stage 3 noise requirements. Airline officials told RFE/RL recently they continue to rely on their Russian colleagues' negotiating skills to win a last-minute compromise to allow them to continue to fly to Western Europe.

One captain of a Belavia Tupolev-134 -- Aleksei Astashevich -- who under the new rules, could find himself banned from piloting his craft in foreign skies, admits few staffers at the company understand the severity of the predicament: "The fact is that we ourselves don't know what's going on."

One thing is certain, however: even if Belavia finds its aircraft stranded at home after 1 April, the ban won't affect President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Despite his self-proclaimed admiration for all things Russian, Belarus's leader has ordered himself a private Boeing jet.

To some degree, whether and where stage 3 rules are enforced could boil down to economics. David Learmount of "Flight International" explains: "Any country which really intends to abide by chapter 3 has a right to ban the Russians from sending these aircraft in and I don't think the Russians will argue. But there are other countries or perhaps certain airports in countries in Europe which will be prepared, for the sake of their own economy, to allow the Russians to operate these stage 2 aircraft."

There is, however, a wrinkle. A decision by a country that is a member of the ICAO to disregard stage 3 regulations could precipitate legal action before the United Nations' main judicial organ in The Hague.

"If a citizen of that country, let's say it were the Czech Republic, if a citizen of the Czech Republic were to take its own government to court -- to the International Court -- about allowing the operation of aircraft which after 1 April will be banned by international treaty, then that citizen would win in the International Court."

Analyst Vladimir Kornozov says assessing the full economic effect of the new noise regulations on East European airlines will be difficult, as many subtle factors have to be taken into account.

"Now it is really difficult to estimate the cost because a big amount of the loss which come from the changes is in the timetable. And that would involve, let's say, replacing an Ilyushin-86 flying regular services with a less capacious Tupolev-154M, for example, which is twice less capacious. And you just can't fly two flights with a Tupolev to replace one flight on an Ilyushin because there are some international regulations."

There could ultimately be an impact on Russia's domestic aircraft industry, as local airlines increasingly buy Western planes due to the lack of home-built alternatives. Some have invested their hopes in the new mid-range Tupolev-334, which should meet all international requirements. But production remains some time away. And European airport operators, for one, have run out of patience. Ronan Anderson is spokesman for the Airports Council International Europe, an association which groups together 450 airports across the continent. The group is looking forward to the stage 3 requirements and intends to enforce their implementation.

"The question remains: How long can you keep these noisy planes in the air? Technology has moved on and at some stage you're going to reach a point where you're going to have to leverage technology to perform the same task, but with a quieter, less environmentally damaging plane. And this is the first step towards that goal."

(Ihar Karniej and Bohdan Andrusyshyn of RFE/RL's Belarus Service contributed to this report.)