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Deadly Russian Plane Crash Shines Spotlight On Regional Carriers

Emergencies Ministry members and firefighters work at the site of a Tatarstan Airlines Boeing 737 crash at Kazan airport on November 17.
As Tatarstan residents mourn the 50 victims of a plane crash in the republic's capital, Kazan, the disaster has cast a harsh spotlight on the safety of Russian regional carriers.

The Boeing 737 operated by Tatarstan Airlines crashed on November 17 while trying to land in Kazan, killing everyone on board.

Investigators say the plane, which was flying from Moscow, slammed into the ground while making a second attempt at landing before bursting into flames.

They are looking into pilot error and technical problems, including equipment failure.

WATCH: CCTV Footage Of The Kazan Plane Crash

Among the mourners laying flowers at the airport on November 18, many had angry words for Tatarstan Airlines and Russian aviation authorities.

One mourner, named Dmitry, called the tragedy "unimaginable -- it's awful, just awful."

"I would like to again remind our so-called controlling agencies not to give certificates to airplanes that everyone knows shouldn't be flying," he said. "Everyone already knows what state our national aviation is in. So, on the one hand this isn't surprising; it's just a shame that people die."

Safety Improving, But Not In Russia

While airline safety is improving worldwide, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said last year that accident rates were on the rise in Russia.

According to IATA, Russia and the former Soviet republics have some of the world's worst flight-safety records, with a combined accident rate almost three times the world average in 2011.

A host of small carriers have emerged across Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union, where Aeroflot had a virtual monopoly of the airline industry. Experts decry what they describe as a cost-cutting mentality at many of these companies, claiming that some put profit before safety.

Insufficient pilot training and an aging fleet are also cited as factors affecting flight safety.

READ ALSO: Investigators Look For Clues To Crash In Kazan

Andrei Fomin, the editor of the Russian aviation journal "Vzlyot," said that Russian aviation authorities are doing their best to regulate the industry.

"With regard to the control over the level of serviceability and the respect of all the required procedures, aviation authorities are quite serious about it," Fomin said. "Tatarstan Airlines, just like other carriers, was controlled by federal and local organs of Rosaviatsia. But it's impossible to control every step of every pilot and technician."

'Poorly Run, Dangerously Old'

In Kazan, however, Tatarstan Airlines is described by many as a poorly run company, crippled with debt and operating a fleet of dangerously old jets.

Irek Murtazin, an independent journalist who worked as a press secretary for Tatarstan's former president, Mintimer Shaimiev, said the airline should never have been allowed on the market.

"Over the past five years, the company has had five different directors," Murtazin said. "The airline's state of affairs is simply catastrophic. Such airlines shouldn't even exist. This airline was a pet project of Tatarstan's leadership."

Tatarstan Airlines, which had begun replacing its creaking Boeing 737s with newer Airbus 319s, insists its ill-fated Boeing was in good condition and had undergone regular maintenance between flights.

Two passengers who said they had flown on the same plane from Kazan to Moscow earlier on November 17, however, were quoted by Russian media as saying they felt vibrations as they landed in Moscow.

The plane was built 23 years ago and had seen service with seven other carriers, including airlines in Uganda, Romania, Brazil, and Bulgaria, prior to being commissioned by Tatarstan Airlines in 2008.

In 2001, it was damaged in a landing accident in Brazil in which no one was hurt.

The November 17 plane crash evoked painful parallels to a riverboat tragedy in Tatarstan two years ago, when a creaking tourist boat named "Bulgaria" sank in the Volga, causing 122 people to drown.

"The Bulgaria tragedy was a warning bell that you shouldn't fly and sail on pieces of junk," Murtazin said. "Unfortunately, this warning bell was not heeded, and here's the result. The republic is mourning."
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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues.

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    Mark Krutov

    Mark Krutov is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Russian Service and one of the leading investigative journalists in Russia. He has been instrumental in the production of dozens of in-depth reports, exposing corruption among Russia's political elite and revealing the murky operations behind Kremlin-led secret services. Krutov joined RFE/RL in 2003 and has extensive experience as both a correspondent and a TV host.