Streetwise Professor

May 10, 2012

Russian Civil Aviation: Already Unsafe, and Likely to Become More So

Filed under: Economics,Russia — The Professor @ 2:42 pm

Russian aviation suffered another grievous blow yesterday with the crash of a new Sukhoi Superjet 100 on a demonstration flight in Indonesia.  The Superjet has been touted as the harbinger of the resurgence of Russian civil aviation.

No details about the cause of the crash have been released.  From the appearance of the gash in the vegetation and the lack of large pieces of debris on the mountainside in the photograph in the Bloomberg article, it looks that the aircraft plunged almost vertically into a ravine on the Indonesian volcano. The pilot had radioed to request permission to descend from 10,000 feet to 6,000 before contact was lost with the aircraft.  Perhaps this indicates a cabin compression problem, or an engine problem.  The pilot did not explain the reason for the request (at least I have not seen any such reason reported).

My condolences go out to all those who perished.

This has been a particularly bad year for Russian aviation, even by rather frightening Russian standards.  Those hardy enough or unlucky enough to fly Russian airlines have to brave a daunting array of dangers, from antiquated aircraft, to poor maintenance, to ill-trained and sometimes inebriated pilots, to bad fuel (potentially a cause of the crash of the plane carrying the Lokomotiv hockey club), to terrorism. The crash of a Sukhoi plane is particularly disconcerting, because whereas MiG military aircraft are notoriously dangerous to fly, Sukhoi military planes have a fairly good safety record.

And things could get worse. In an every-silver-lining-has-its-cloud sort of way, the growing number of commercial flights in Russia outpacing the ability of the country to produce pilots:

As passenger flights continue to increase, the number of students graduating from Russian aviation academies won’t be able to meet airlines’ staffing demands, an industry expert said. The burgeoning deficit is prompting airlines to cover their staffing needs by poaching pilots from other airlines and starting special recruitment programs, among other means. If this deficit is not successfully addressed, it could exacerbate the safety concerns about air travel in Russia, experts said.

“The most problematic segment, the deficit which could directly affect the level of flight safety in the future, is the shortage of graduates from educational institutions specializing in flight operations,” said Oleg Panteleyev, an analyst at the industry information agency Aviaport.

According to Panteleyev, about 330 new pilots graduated from Russian flight schools in 2011. Although the state flight schools plan to graduate 480 pilots in 2012 and to increase that number in future years, the number of graduates will be less than the number required by airlines. The industry’s staffing needs will include an estimated 800 to 1,000 pilots annually over the next few years, he said.

Meanwhile, passenger travel continues to grow in Russia. Sixty-four million people flew on Russian airlines in 2011, and the number of passenger flights increased 12.6 percent compared with 2010, RIA-Novosti reported in March. The number of passengers grew 18 percent in the first two months of 2012 as compared with the same period last year, according to the news service.

The margins along which carriers can adjust to meet the shortage are readily foreseen, and all involve a compromise in safety.  Airlines can work their pilots longer hours, leading to more fatigue. They can schedule more tightly in order to utilize human and mechanical resources more intensely.  They can hire less capable, less well-trained, and less-experienced pilots.  All of these alternatives increase risk, particularly in Russia given the challenging weather conditions, and the fact that aircraft are more aged (and hence have fewer advanced computers and avionics that can substitute for pilot skill, and which are are more vulnerable to mechanical problems that less-skilled pilots are more capable of handling), and less-well maintained.  The Sukhoi crash only exacerbates these problems as it reduces the likelihood that the rapid introduction of new, more capable and forgiving aircraft will offset the decline in average pilot skill.

In other words, Russian civil aviation is already precarious, and is only likely to get worse as the demand for air transit increases.  It is plagued by both hardware and software problems that are becoming more acute, and will continue to worsen as the industry attempts to expand the scale of its operations.

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  1. SWP, if you’d only seen some of the planes I flew on over there. Oy vey… Also, I saw a list years ago of Russian airlines the EU wouldn’t allow into their airspace. I had flown on about 8 of the 10 listed. In the winters, I just took the train. I had to hedge my risk somehow.

    Comment by Howard Roark — May 10, 2012 @ 5:43 pm

  2. Yep Howard, I can agree there, I grew up in an Air Force family (my father was a senior officer) and have flown more times than I can count.

    The only times I have ever been worried (in fact extremely nervous about survival) was flying on Aeroflot TU-154’s.

    Comment by Andrew — May 10, 2012 @ 9:14 pm

  3. Yep, and the Yak-40’s!

    Comment by Howard Roark — May 10, 2012 @ 9:22 pm

  4. In an every-silver-lining-has-its-cloud sort of way, the growing number of commercial flights in Russia outpacing the ability of the country to produce pilots:

    What’s the betting there is some monumentally stupid rule in place which states all pilots have to have FSB security clearance, thus barring foreigners? Or something like that.

    Comment by Tim Newman — May 10, 2012 @ 11:30 pm

  5. I have heard (not positive) that there is a requirement – not for an FSB clearance, but for additional training to be able to fly military in case of. Lake everywhere else, many military pilots in Russia later become commercial ones. But I don’t think one can become a commercial pilot in Russia bypassing the military path.

    Still would like to clarify though.

    Comment by LadderLogic — May 11, 2012 @ 4:43 am

  6. Howard,

    A plane can still crash on your train.

    Modern planes fly themselves. That’s why when the shit hits the fan, and the pilots really have to fly it, they often can’t. See Air France Flight 447. If not for bored airliner pilots, the glider industry would have been dead 20 years ago (it’s barely alive now) – the only way they can feel like pilots, and not autopilot operators.

    Anyway, full automation is still the future. Good pilots take too long to train. Bad pilots only make things worse.

    Comment by So? — May 12, 2012 @ 1:50 am

  7. I’ve always enjoyed flying on Soviet civil aircraft from Antonovs to Yakovlevs. I only regret that it’s unlikely that I’ll ever catch a ride on an IL-62. At the time they entered regular service, many Soviet aircraft were at the cutting edge of civil aviation. The Soviets like the Americans, the British and the French all suffered and continue to suffer setbacks when certifying new types. The recent spate of issue with the 787 have not ended in a fatal accident but they are still a problem for the manufacturer.

    These days, all of the Russian airlines are flying western made aircraft… with the rare exception of a couple of S-100 superjets. Yeah, some of them are a bit old like TransAirs 747s. Just like Air France’s. For the most part, they are all fairly new, likely leased abroad and under foreign maintenance contracts. There are not too many RA tail numbers, mostly EI.

    Comment by Rian Monnahan — February 12, 2013 @ 12:53 pm

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