Lack of fuel grounding Aeroflot Soviet airports close

railroads also failing

December 13, 1991|By Los Angeles Times

MOSCOW -- Across the country, travelers arrived at airports yesterday, only to find that no planes would be flying anywhere.

One-third of the country's 350 airports were closed, and dozens more were expected to follow suit at any time, according to officials at the Soviet Civil Aviation Ministry.

It may be the hallmark of the tumultuous situation -- political triumphs are quickly overshadowed by economic disasters.

The announcement of Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin's success in forging a Commonwealth of Independent States was followed within minutes by a report from the Tass news agency that 92 airports had stopped operating for lack of fuel and that 38 more were using up their last gallons.

Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, the Soviet Far East and the Caucasus region were all affected, and the problem is likely to spread rapidly through the nation.

"This economic disintegration affects us badly," said Andrei K. Andreyev, head of the Air Traffic Control Directorate at the Civil Aviation Ministry.

"We are torturing both our passengers and ourselves. Only 60 percent of our flights are on schedule, and it gets worse," he said.

"What can we do if there's simply no fuel for our aircraft?"

Air travel plays a unique role in a country that spans one-sixth of the globe.

Last year, Aeroflot, the country's only airline and the world's biggest,carried 140 million passengers on domestic and foreign

flights.

"What is really surprising is not that a hundred or so airports have shut down, but that the remaining 250 still operate," said economist Aleksei A. Sergeyev.

"The economic collapse proceeds at the breakneck speed, and I quite agree . . . that the entire economy and its lifelines, the transportation links, will fold down by January."

More and more frequently, exasperated passengers are taking matters into their own hands.

Dozens of times, they have tried to seize waiting aircraft, and they have sometimes succeeded in diverting them to their preferred destinations.

This happened Tuesday in Ekaterinburg, and even a militia squad could not dislodge the enraged people from the airliner they stormed, insisting on their right to fly to the Crimea.

The usual answer to such actions was to yield to the passengers, avoiding a bigger confrontation. But now there are simply no flights to divert.

The traditional solution, sending people by rail, is also no longer working. Two weeks ago the Soviet railroad company announced it was halting all service abroad because it lacks foreign, convertible currency to pay its numerous partners. And its domestic operations are also grinding to a halt.

The manager of an oil refinery in eastern Russia said yesterday in a television interview that his plant was "awash" in gasoline and aviation fuel.

But, he complained bitterly, there are no tank cars to transport it to the consumers.

There are also political reasons for the transportation problems.

Azerbaijanis have blocked the rail line to Armenia, the women in a Russian enclave in Moldova stage sit-ins on the tracks leading to the Moldovan capital, and angry farmers in Siberia threaten to cut the vital trans-Siberian railroad if their economic demands are not met.

Fuel blockades have also resulted from conflicts between the republics.

The transportation network is still centralized, and it is difficult to keep it operating when most republics are spinning off in their own directions.

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