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Russia: Midair Collision Raises Questions Of Air Safety

A midair collision over Lake Constance late last night sent a chartered Bashkir Tupolev airliner and a DHL Boeing courier jet crashing in southwestern Germany near the Swiss border. The crash killed 57 passengers and 12 crew members on the Tupolev 154 and the pilot and co-pilot of the Boeing 757.

Prague, 2 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Last night's midair collision of a Bashkir airliner with a DHL cargo jet over Lake Constance once again raises questions about the state of civil aviation in the Russian Federation.

Chris Yates is the aviation-security editor for "Jane's." Yates notes Russian aviation has had a fairly bad reputation going back to the Soviet era. And while some airlines, such as Aeroflot, have purchased Western aircraft, others, such as Bashkir Airlines, the national airline of Bashkortostan, rely on the 30-year-old workhorse of Soviet-era civil aviation: the Tupolev-154 tri-jet.

Until last night, Bashkir Airlines had eight Tupolev-154s flying chiefly on domestic routes within the Commonwealth of Independent States and to Turkey.

Yates said there is still a concern that safety is not of paramount importance to some airlines in the region. "There have been issues in the past with regard to [the safety of] some [Russian] Federation airlines and concerns primarily about the maintenance of aircraft and the safe operation of aircraft. I'm not aware of any complaints with regard to this airline particularly, though it has to be said that it doesn't necessarily follow that this accident was anything other than a set of unfortunate circumstances related to human error," Yates said.

Last night's Bashkir Airlines charter flight 2937 was taking 52 children and teenagers and five adults on a UNESCO-organized beach holiday to Spain. Many of the victims were the children of members of the republic's government and presidential administration. The passengers had missed their scheduled connecting flight from Moscow on 30 June because of insufficient time to transfer from one Moscow airport to another. A plane was then chartered to get them to Barcelona.

German and Swiss air-traffic controllers say the Bashkir pilot was repeatedly told to change altitude to avoid a collision but only began descending after the third warning.

Meanwhile, a collision-warning system in the German-owned, Brussels-based DHL International Boeing 757 sounded, requiring its British pilot and Canadian co-pilot to descend immediately, without consulting ground control.

DHL International spokesman Axel Gietz said, "The Russian pilot never responded to those warnings from air-traffic control, and by the time our pilots, through this warning system, were alerted, they had a matter of two to three seconds to react, and obviously it was too late."

Yates said there are several possible causes for this crash. "I think there are two possible issues here. One clearly is that there is a possibility that there was some sort of communication-equipment failure or fault on board the [Bashkir] aircraft. There is also the potential for a language issue," Yates said.

However, an Austrian air-traffic control spokesman, Heinz Sommerbauer, said the Bashkir pilot's knowledge of English was "quite excellent." Shortly before the crash, Austrian air-traffic control handed the Bashkir flight over to German air-traffic control, which minutes later passed it on to its Swiss counterpart.

Also coming to the crew's defense was the spokeswoman for Moscow's Domodedovo airport, from where the Bashkir Tupolev took off on its fateful flight. "The aircraft was fully prepared for the flight. There were 57 passengers and 12 crew members on board. The crew was one of the most experienced crews today, a very experienced crew. They had been flying international flights for 10 years."

Russia's first deputy minister for transportation, Aleksandr Neradko, said human error, whether in the sky or on the ground, was the most likely cause of the catastrophe.

European airspace is divided among a plethora of national and regional air-traffic-control zones, which complicates the job of controllers and aircraft crews. Yates said a handover, coming at a time of confusion over altitude, could have further exacerbated the danger of a collision. "We have to remember that where this accident happened is at the boundary of two flight-information regions -- one for Germany, one for Switzerland -- and at such boundaries, there is a handover protocol that is gone through where the air-traffic controller will typically hand off the aircraft to his counterpart in the next flight-information region. If that was going on at the same time as all of the rest of this was going on, then that could also have given rise to some confusion," Yates said.

Although it's been around for more than three decades, the Tupolev 154, a medium-haul airliner, is nowhere near retirement. "[The Tupolev 154] is going to continue to be a workhorse, I feel. A lot of these smaller airlines across the [Russian] Federation have neither the wherewithal nor whatever else it requires to obtain newer aircraft from the likes of Boeing, Airbus or, indeed, from the various aircraft manufacturers within the Russian Federation," Yates said.

Yates said he foresees the Tupolev 154 and its various derivatives continuing to operate for some time to come. The Tupolev involved in last night's collision was just seven years old.