President Dmitry Medvedev’s announcement on Thursday that Russia’s aging fleet of Tu-134 airliners will be mothballed by next year is welcome news – particularly after Monday’s crash in Karelia, which killed at least 45 people.
It will not, sadly, save the lives of the hundreds of people who have died in Tu-134 and Tu-154 crashes over the years. But it will at least start to tackle the problem of Russia’s outdated airlines and airports.
Russia’s aviation infrastructure has been deteriorating as planes get older and regional airports fall further behind international standards. As a huge country with a relatively large economy, transport infrastructure is one of the key problems holding back modernization.
This was recognized in 2007, when the government pledged to phase out Tu-134s in five years. As of press time Thursday, it appears the president’s announcement has simply confirmed that deadline, but hasn’t yet grounded
That should now happen, effective immediately, and authorities should urgently boost Russia’s domestic fleet with modern airliners that fully conform to international safety standards.
While many business experts recommend sensible solutions to tackle air safety, there is a blind spot here. Put simply, private profit often takes precedence over public safety when it comes to airlines and airports.
This can be seen from the commercial pressures that airlines (particularly smaller domestic ones) and their pilots are under to cut costs. As well as a lack of investment into new planes, Russian pilots are still woefully underpaid. This leads to a smaller pool of overworked pilots and pressure being put on pilots to fly in bad weather.
While phasing out the Tu-134 is indeed welcome, a more comprehensive solution is required. Russia’s airlines – like with railways, its main transport arteries – should be regarded as a national priority, and taken fully into public ownership.
With a large-scale program of investment into aircraft and airports, safety levels could be raised dramatically. This would boost the economy of many of Russia’s regions – and help the president fulfill his ambitious modernization program.