February 22, 2024

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Russian air passengers face peril as planes show strain of sanctions

6 min read

MOSCOW — Over the first eight days of December, civilian Russian airplanes experienced at least eight serious mechanical failures, terrifying many passengers as pilots were forced to make emergency landings in cities across the country.

The incidents did not kill anyone, but they illustrate the rising peril of air travel in Russia. Nearly two years of sanctions over the war in Ukraine have left airlines struggling to obtain vital spare parts and, as a result, shortcutting safety standards — in some cases with government approval.

On Dec. 8, S7 Airlines passengers heard loud bangs when their Boeing 737 took off from Novosibirsk for Moscow, as both of the plane’s engines surged and spat flames, Russian media reported.

The same day, a Rossiya Airlines Airbus A319 flying to St. Petersburg lost cabin pressure and began to fall from the sky shortly after takeoff from Mineralnye Vody. The pilots made an emergency landing, Russian Telegram channels reported, and video from inside the cabin showed passengers screaming and crying as oxygen masks deployed from the ceiling.

On Dec. 11, a Utair flight made an emergency landing because of a wing flap failure while carrying 104 passengers and 42 pounds of a radioactive substance, Russian media reported. A Utair plane flying from Moscow to Kogalym in the Khanty-Mansi region of Siberia signaled an emergency because of engine failure on Dec. 29.

Also in December, Russia’s main carrier, Aeroflot, experienced a string of emergencies: an Airbus A321 with left engine failure; another Airbus 321 with an air conditioning problem; two Boeing 737s with landing gear failures; a Boeing 737 with a wing flap failure; and a Boeing 777 with smoke in the cabin due to a short circuit. Multiple other failures led to long delays and stranded passengers.

Other airlines have experienced severe engine vibrations, sudden engine shutdowns, and failures with hydraulic systems, wing flaps, steering systems, autopilot and oil filters, among other problems.

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After President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in 2022, Western nations put sanctions on Russian aviation, banning the transfer of technology and spare parts, as well as servicing, insurance or software updates for Russia’s large fleet of Western planes.

More than a year ago, in September 2022, the International Civil Aviation Organization red-flagged Russian aviation, citing significant concerns about the country’s ability to maintain the safety of its aircraft.

Russian aviation officials, however, have adopted an “everything is fine” mantra, insisting that sanctions do not affect safety and, in some cases, denying media reports about increased air incidents.

“Logistic chains are available to domestic airlines, thanks to which they receive the required spare parts and components for the normal operation of aircraft,” Mikhail Vasilenkovf the Federal Air Transport Agency said in a December statement.

The agency reported 400 civil aviation incidents due to serious equipment malfunctions from January to November last year, claiming this as good news because of a 2 percent decrease from the same period in 2022, the first year of sanctions.

But in a December opinion article in Kommersant, a leading newspaper, Oleg Panteleyev, director of Aviaport, a Russian aviation think tank, said the risks had “increased exponentially,” adding that there had been a sharp reduction in technical inspections.

Some Russian aviation analysts have joined the government in seeking to minimize the growing danger, while others say it is only a matter of time before there is a major catastrophe.

“Of course sanctions affect flight safety,” said Russian aviation analyst Andrei Menshenin in an interview. “They can’t not affect it.” But he said Russian airlines had softened the impact by importing spare parts and even fully reconditioned engines through Central Asia, Turkey, Singapore, Iran and other countries. “The question is, what does it cost? It costs a lot.”

“The situation with flight safety in Russian aviation is much better than was expected and much better than what was predicted at the beginning of 2022,” Menshenin added. Still, he conceded that Russian pilots in some cases have come under intense pressure, as they face life-or-death decisions when equipment fails.

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Andrei Patrakov, an independent Russian aviation safety expert and head of RunAvia, a company specializing in drone and aircraft safety, said in an interview that Russian authorities are letting airlines use parts well beyond their serviceable life, leading to midair failures.

Patrakov said he fears reprisals from Russian authorities for discussing the dangers but felt obliged to speak out.

“I am independent and my motivation is to provide safety, and when I talk about all the problems, my idea is not to make people nervous, it is for the sake of safety,” he said. “Sometimes Russian government organizations or state-owned companies don’t even think about these problems. But sometimes it’s a very big issue with air safety and some people may finally die. And my mission is to save these people.”

Despite the harrowing incidents portrayed in news accounts and in real-time cellphone videos and photos posted by passengers on social media, Russians continue to fly. And despite tough sanctions, Russian aviation has not collapsed — even though Western planes account for 95 percent of passenger flights and new Russian planes use mainly Western components.

The December incidents were hardly unusual.

In October, 10 fearful passengers insisted on disembarking after a Russian-made Sukhoi Superjet stalled while taxiing to the runway, according to eyewitnesses quoted in news reports. They said the captain told passengers he had rebooted and everything was fine.

In September, the pilots of Ural Airlines Flight 1383, an Airbus 320 traveling to Omsk in Siberia from Sochi in southern Russia, diverted to an airport with a longer runaway because of a hydraulic failure. When the plane ran low on fuel, the pilots landed in a field.

There were no medals. Instead, the pilots were attacked by experts and colleagues for endangering passengers’ lives by flying farther to get to the longer runway, because too many other failures could have occurred while they were in the air. The 20-year-old plane will be cannibalized for parts and sawed up.

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In 2022, Russian authorities issued developer certificates allowing 100 companies, including seven airlines, to modify parts and perform nonstandard maintenance to keep planes flying.

But in November, Russian airline Pobeda had its developer certificate suspended because of serious violations in modifications to three Boeings, including alterations to the traffic collision avoidance system, according to pro-Kremlin Izvestia newspaper.

Last May, Russian investigative outlet Proekt reported sources stating that airlines were discouraging crews from logging malfunctions.

Patrakov, the analyst fearful of reprisal, said that “Russian air safety was a total disaster” even before sanctions hit. Now, he said, many planes are due for necessary maintenance, “but it’s not done because the parts are not available because of sanctions.”

Planes are continuing to fly with faulty parts — for example, with cracks — long after they should be replaced, he said, warning that “you can extend whatever you want, but you cannot extend the laws of physics.”

“If you have a component with a crack inside, you have some reserve time to replace it, say 10 days, but not three to four times that, because it has a physical limit,” Patrakov continued. “And the question is, when will it reach a critical limit when this part is totally broken, and this part can trigger a catastrophic event?”

Even before the war, the troubled Russian-made Sukhoi Superjet, with a largely French-manufactured engine and 70 percent foreign parts, accounted for dozens of serious air incidents. But such incidents spiked after sanctions hit, according to analysts, because accessing Sukhoi parts is much more difficult than for Boeing or Airbus planes.

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In November, Andrey Boginsky, head of Yakovlev, the Superjet’s manufacturer, told jet operators at a meeting in St. Petersburg that Russia could repair only 178 of the plane’s 903 imported parts.

A Superjet flight from Vladivostok to Chita in October was a prime case: On takeoff, passengers felt a thud, and the plane had to circle, burn fuel and make an emergency landing because of a problem with the left engine.

The next day, a replacement Superjet stalled while taxiing to the runway, leading the 10 angry passengers to bail. The plane took off — after the pilot announced he had rebooted it — but never made it to Chita. The flight was forced to land in Khabarovsk because of a hydraulic failure.

Natalia Abbakumova in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.

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