Finger-pointing fails to improve Russia's dreadful air safety record

By Lidia Kelly and Alexei Anishchuk
The wreckage of what is believed to be Christophe de Margerie's Dassault Falcon jet is seen at Moscow's Vnukovo airport, October 21, 2014. REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev

By Lidia Kelly and Alexei Anishchuk

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Regardless of who is to blame for the death of Total's boss at the Moscow airport favoured by President Vladimir Putin, it reinforces an indisputable fact: Russia's air-safety record is dreadful and the wave of crashes is not abating.

Numerous official investigations and a crackdown in recent years have done nothing to raise Russia from near the bottom of the global league, largely due to weak regulation and the effects of sky-high alcohol consumption.

Only a few hours after the private jet of Christophe de Margerie hit a snow plough on take off from Vnukovo Airport, fingers were already being pointed.

Russian investigators accused the snow-plough's driver of being drunk, saying they were also examining the actions of air traffic controllers and the flight crew.

The snow-plough driver rejected the allegations. "He considers himself guiltless as he followed all the instructions from the dispatcher," his lawyer Alexander Karabanov told Reuters. "Relatives are afraid that the airport authorities are just trying to make him ultimately responsible to avoid billions in lawsuits which are for sure to follow."

Nevertheless, no one denies the plough drove onto a runway into the path of the jet, killing de Margerie, chief executive of the fourth largest Western oil company, and three crew in the crash around midnight on Monday.

"This is a glaring fact and I think this will have big repercussions - and that's the last thing Russia wants," Alexander Romanov, an air safety expert, told Reuters.

Romanov declined to elaborate on these repercussions, but in the accident Putin lost a close associate at an airport that he himself uses for frequent flights around Russia and abroad, sometimes as often as several times per week.

Total is one of the biggest foreign investors in Russia. The French oil and gas group expects its output there to double by 2020 and de Margerie vocally opposed Western economic sanctions imposed over the Kremlin's involvement in the Ukraine crisis.

Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, declined to comment on whether the crash posed any security risks to Putin.

Vnukovo, the smallest of three main airports serving Moscow, opened during World War II as a military base but has undergone a major modernisation in recent years. It handled more than 12 million passengers last year, most of them on flights that used the runway on which de Margerie died.

Putin, along with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and some visiting heads of government use a separate terminal and another runway which crosses the one that normally carries commercial flights.

"As such, this is unlikely to have implications for Putin, but for sure there will be increased checks, increased security before Putin's next trip," a high-ranking Russian security source told Reuters. Officers from Putin's Federal Protection Service and the Federal Security Service were sent to the airport after the crash, the source added.

"The same runway or not, it is the same airport. You need to wonder how secure it is," said another security source, who declined to be named.

"DRUNK TRACTOR" FACTOR

According to the International Air Transport Association, Russia and the other former republics of the Soviet Union grouped in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) have some of the worst air-safety records in the world.

In its latest annual review, IATA said there had been a "significant deterioration in safety" in the CIS last year. The previous year it ranked the region as second worst in the world in terms of airline safety, just ahead of Africa, a marginal improvement from 2011 when it was bottom of the table.

Analysis of accident statistics last year showed that flying as a commercial airline passenger in Russia was roughly four times as dangerous as the world average. Worldwide, one passenger died for every 4.7 million that board a commercial airliner. In Russia, that ratio was one to 1.2 million, according to figures from IATA, the Aviation Safety Network website and Russia's Rosaviation agency.

Aside from the disputed circumstances of de Margerie's death, alcohol is often a factor in fatal transport accidents in Russia, where people each bought on average more than 10 litres of hard liquor last year, according to consumer watchdog Rospotrebnadzor.

Andrei Litvinov, an aviation expert and pilot with Russian flag carrier Aeroflot, said he had often seen clearly intoxicated drivers at the wheel of airport ground vehicles. "'Look, there's a drunk tractor driving' we used to say when someone was driving a tractor or a baggage cart," he told Reuters. "It happened really often."

Frequently the blame has fallen on air crew themselves. Investigators determined that the pilot of an aircraft belonging to a domestic subsidiary of Aeroflot, which crashed in 2008 killing 88 people, had alcohol in his blood and had become disoriented.

In 2012, investigators said both pilots were drunk when their An-28 plane slammed into a forest on the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Russian Far East. Ten people were killed.

In 2011, a drunken navigator contributed to a crash in Petrozavodsk that killed 47 people when his instructions led an inexperienced pilot to attempt a fatal landing in heavy fog, according to investigators.

Alcohol misuse is only one problem in an industry that has also faced criticism over poor training and weak regulation.

When a Tatarstan Airlines Boeing crashed in Kazan last November, killing all 50 on board, it led to a wide-ranging investigation into how Russia's airline industry is regulated.

Investigators said the civil aviation watchdog had licensed training centres without appropriate credentials, and some had issued fake licences to underqualified pilots.

Despite the recent crackdown, critics say that regulation remains weak. "No one is dealing with it in a serious and systematic way," Litvinov said.

"Unless we have a systematic approach to civil aviation we will have to plug these holes: someone got drunk, or some airfield was in poor condition, or some traffic controller was tired ... This will go on forever."

(Addtional reporting by Maria Vasilyeva and Maria Tsvetkova; Writing by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Jason Bush and David Stamp)