Russia crash raises issue of reliability

March 24, 1994|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- Emergency workers fought their way through 9 feet of snow yesterday to the Siberian crash site of an Aeroflot plane bound for Hong Kong, while in Moscow the disaster underscored already urgent questions about the airline's reliability.

All 75 people aboard the 183-seat Airbus A-310 jetliner were killed.

Air traffic controllers in Novokuznetsk said the plane vanished suddenly from their radar screens early Wednesday morning. There was no distress signal, and several experts here said that that strongly suggests a midair explosion.

The plane plunged 30,000 feet, crashing into the forested Altai Mountains. Villagers nearby said they heard an explosion as it hit the ground.

Aeroflot, which is struggling with high fuel prices, a decline in passengers, lax security and the breakup of the airline itself -- all in the midst of the larger turmoil afflicting Russia -- contends that its maintenance and safety standards have not been lowered.

"The same safety systems still work. We meet the highest standards," Valery N. Kasyanenko, a deputy director in the Transport Ministry, said in a recent interview.

The last five years have seen a sharp increase in the number of crashes and deaths, though figures vary. Rossiskaya Gazeta reported that 221 people died in crashes last year, up from 75 in 1988.

Many here are concerned that in creating more than 200 small companies out of what was once the world's largest airline, Russian officials are now courting chaos.

The International Airline Passengers Association listed the former Soviet Union last week as among the world's most dangerous places to fly.

Aeroflot now handles only international flights, such as the ill-fated flight to Hong Kong, but the crash has shaken confidence in the whole Russian system.

Although a plane belonging to one of the spin-off companies crashed in Irkutsk in January after an engine caught fire, killing 120, Aeroflot was supposed to have the best people (especially pilots), and the 14-month-old Airbus, built in Western Europe, was supposed to be its best plane.

Aeroflot pilots gathered at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow yesterday to console each other and try to find out all they could about the crash.

They were threatened with dismissal if they talked with reporters, but one pilot agreed to speak on condition of anonymity.

The plane's flight crew was led by Andrei Danilov, a well-regarded officer in his late 30s, who had been trained in Italy to fly the Airbus, the Aeroflot pilot said.

He described Mr. Danilov as a quiet and friendly man who was popular as a trainer. The Hong Kong flight was considered a plum assignment.

The Aeroflot pilot insisted that the planes are well maintained, even if passengers find them to be dirty, smelly or uncomfortable.

"No one wants to die," he said. "We check every plane. Something else happened, something out of the ordinary. I don't think it was a crew mistake or a technical malfunction. It could only have been an explosion."

He speculated that the plane could have been brought down by a bomb -- possibly even planted by a competitor.

A Transport Ministry aide told Russian television that the crash could only have been caused by a sudden depressurization aboard the jetliner caused by an explosion or collision.

But an air traffic official, Dmitri Polkanov, told the Reuters news agency, "The idea of a bomb is almost ruled out."

"We don't know what happened yet," said Vladimir Dorishev, commercial director for the airline. "Aeroflot is still one of the safest air companies in the world."

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