Tue, Aug 09, 2011 - Page 7 News List

Russia in dilemma over its aging Soviet jet fleet


A Kremlin vow to ground Soviet-era jets after a spate of air disasters has raised fears that the remotest parts of Russia could be left cut off with no means of access by plane.

Creaking aircraft like the Tupolev Tu-134 and the turboprop Antonov An-24 are often the only planes light enough to land on the short gravel strips of Russia’s -permafrost-covered Arctic regions and the wind-swept tundra belt.

Many of those towns — developed in Josef Stalin’s times to mine for minerals and drill for oil — are built thousands of kilometers away from large cities and often not linked to other parts of Russia by either road or rail.

However, the once-proud workhorses now fly with outdated and increasingly unresponsive equipment that pilots say often leaves them reliant on little more than intuition to land.

Two accidents involving the Tu-134 and An-24 this summer that killed 54 people prompted Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to call for most of the aircraft to be retired by Jan. 1 and the rest taken out in subsequent months.

However, even the most senior officials were quick to admit that implementing the ban would not be that simple.

“Of course, we could simply ban the flights. That would be the simplest solution. But then what would we fly?” Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov asked shortly after Medvedev’s announcement.

One analyst said the ban could interrupt travel to at least 50 of the 300-plus airfields currently operated across the vast country. Russian Transport officials said Russia’s fleet of 90 Tu-134 jets could slip to 15 by next year.

“How are we going to reach the many northwestern and Siberia airports whose runways cannot accommodate modern Russian and foreign jets?” said UTair, which has the largest fleet of such planes.

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