On Sept. 7 a plane departed Yaroslavl, a small city about 150 miles northeast of Moscow, carrying the region’s legendary pro hockey team, Lokomotiv. Within minutes of liftoff it plummeted directly into the banks of the Volga, exploding into flames. Forty-three of the 45 people on the flight died quickly. The other two just wished they had. Forward Aleksander Galimov waded ashore, to rescue workers who couldn’t recognize him. “Galimov had no face on him,” a policeman told a Russian paper. “No eyes, no ears, just holes.” He died five painful days later. Video then surfaced of the plane’s engineer, Aleksander Sizov, being wheeled into a local hospital, burned so badly that his lips had disappeared, begging for poison.
Yet it’s hard to call something an accident when it happens so regularly. Barely a month goes by without something falling from the Russian sky: Rockets, satellites, MiG fighter jets have all come crashing down in the past year. In June a plane crashed into the runway in the northern capital city of Petrozavodsk, killing 44. In July a plane began to break up in flight just outside of Tomsk in western Siberia, killing six. And most notably, a Russian plane ferrying the Polish president and half his government to a commemoration last spring of the Soviet massacre of Polish officers crashed in the fog outside of Smolensk, killing everyone onboard.
Such anecdotes generate the kind of harrowing statistics that underlie a systemic collapse. This year serious accidents occurred at a rate of three per million flights–more than 12 times the global average. “Russia’s safety record is about as bad as it was in Soviet times,” says Boris Rybak, a former aviation industry consultant who now runs a Moscow p.r. agency.
Some of the blame falls on the Soviet- era aircraft and those that came out of Russia’s lurching post-Communist period. (The aircraft that crashed outside Smolensk, an 18-year-old 42D model from an obscure Russian manufacturer, Yakovlev, had been due for a rehaul in the ensuing months.) But the Berlin Wall fell more than 20 years ago, and Vladimir Putin’s ascendant dynasty began in 1999, in lockstep with Russia’s energy gold rush. The planes falling from the sky prove more the symptom of a deadly trade policy that offers a global case study in the perils of protectionism.
When the Soviet Union collapsed 20 years ago its civilian aviation sector, on paper, seemed well-poised for privatization, accounting for nearly a quarter of worldwide production. The command economy, however, masked a creeping rot: The Kremlin had subsidized the industry heavily, which was broken into dozens of inefficient fiefs, each answering to the top, rather than communicating with one another. It was the exact opposite of what had happened in the West, where Boeing in the U.S. and Airbus in Europe had consolidated into profitable megafirms, each of which could efficiently handle the byzantine production process and justify the R&D this capital-intensive industry demands.
When the Kremlin’s largesse dried up, the industry virtually collapsed: Rather than hundreds of aircraft produced annually, in the 1990s it dropped to dozens. It became a literal death spiral: As Russian planes became rarer, they became more difficult and costly to service. Whereas companies like Boeing have integrated, worldwide networks to rush parts to grounded aircraft, finding a part for a broken Antonov or Ilyushin could take weeks, if it could be found at all. This resulted not only in losses for Russian airlines flying old Russian planes but also problems for Russian manufacturers, who, by the beginning of the last decade, resorted to what came to be known in Russia as “aviacannibalism”: breaking down planes for parts to service other planes.
Enter the new strongman president, Putin. Rather than embrace Western manufacturers to stem the crisis and inject some needed competition, he took the opposite tack, seeking to reimpose state control. He threw up 20% tariffs on imports of foreign jets. He publicly demanded that Aeroflot, the biggest Russian air carrier, purchase domestic jets. (“You want to dominate the domestic market, but you don’t want to buy Russian technology,” he said. “That won’t do.”) And in 2006 he essentially nationalized the industry, creating a Russian version of Boeing and Airbus–the United Aircraft Corp., civilian and military aircraft manufacturers under one roof–except that this was one of his so-called “national champions,” controlled and bankrolled by the state.
The results continued to prove disastrous. By last year Russian aircraft production had plummeted to a grand total of seven, acknowledged by President Dmitry Medvedev as a “very sad figure.” And the collective fleet continued to age–in the hinterlands, three-decade-old airplanes aren’t uncommon– resulting in more and more tragedies, culminating with Smolensk.
It’s been impossible for Medvedev to ignore this dynamic. As the hockey team was being burned alive, the president himself was, ironically, at Lokomotiv’s home arena a dozen miles away, preparing to address Russia’s political elite at an international policy forum. He had already proposed yet more reforms–these, for a change, made sense–after the Polish president’s death, cutting the number of government-backed airlines and rescinding the foolish tariff, which allowed the remainder to rejuvenate their fleets with foreign-made aircraft. “The value of human life should be higher than any other logic, including supporting domestic manufacturing,” Medvedev said at a press conference in Yaroslavl. (You can’t keep a good apparatchik down: The tariffs remained in place for small planes, as well as certain midsize aircraft.) Since Smolensk the Kremlin has dished out still more directives, such as cutting the tiny regional airlines that fly very old planes.
Too often, though, the Kremlin is simply playing a game of Whac-AMole: In June, after a Tupolev-134 crashed, Medvedev ordered it grounded. In July it was an Antonov- 24, so that model was grounded, too. Neither of which prevented September’s crash of the Yak-42D.
In part that’s because a two-decade problem, rooted in bad policy, has sunk it roots widely. These old planes came from a half-dozen firms, which produced a half-dozen models each, which means that pilots often are flying unfamiliar machines: The copilot of the Sept. 7 crash had been untrained in flying that model. Given the lousy safety culture among mechanics and pilots–more than one has been discovered to be inebriated in the cockpit–this is a terrifying prospect.
Furthermore, it’s an industry that needs volume to improve. That “sad” seven-aircraft figure means that Russian planes, says one expert, are “basically prototypes, with all the kinks and problems a prototype has.” Except these prototypes, filled with lots of jet fuel, ferry actual people around.
The market opportunity for aircraft in Russia is estimated to be $60 billion, or about 750 aircraft, over the next 20 years. For now the bulk of that deal volume with be gobbled up by Boeing and especially Airbus, which has sold 147 planes in Russia, 79 of them new, over the past 5 years. The Russian consortium’s main contender to compete with the Airbus 320 and Boeing 757 will be the Irkut MS-21, though that’s not due out until 2017. That will give us a glimpse as to whether Russia’s domestic aircraft industry will ever get its sea legs back.
Between the legacy planes and the appalling pilot culture, though, the next few years promise to be bumpy. Just in the time between when I began writing this story and when I finished, an Airbus flying over the Siberian city of Kirov had to make a crash landing, its fuselage filled with smoke.
Not Ready for Takeoff
The Russian commercial aircraft market presents a $60 billion opportunity over the next 20 years, if foreign manufacturers can break in. The underserved demand is huge: Only 5% of the population in Russia and the former Soviet republics currently flies at all. Despite the potential, projections for growth in traffic and aircraft sales in the region lags other BRIC nations. Asia-Pacific air traffic, for example, is forecast to grow 7% a year through 2030, Russia and the former Soviet states 4.2%. According to Boeing, two-thirds of the 1,080 jets expected to be sold across the former Soviet Union over the next 20 years will be single-aisle and regional jets to serve an expected increase in budget carriers. Only 40 jumbo jets may be delivered. Aeroflot has 22 of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliners slated for delivery through 2017. Compare that with 180 jumbo jets expected to be sold in the Middle East. None of the airframe giants will find a wide-open market. Bombardier notes in its most recent forecast that the Russia aircraft market is “not liberalized, and access to the marketplace is tightly controlled, particularly for new aircraft.”
Why Russia Is The World’s Deadliest Place To Fly [Forbes]