A daily bulletin of news & opinion

12 April 2010

Two questions were on most people’s minds when they heard the horrific news about the plane crash outside Smolensk, which killed 96 people including Poland’s president. First, why were so many top-ranking politicians and army top brass allowed to travel on the same plane, and secondly, what on earth was the president of an EU country doing using a Tupolev as his official jet?

The Tu-154 was the workhorse of Soviet passenger aviation and more than 1,000 have been built since it was introduced in the early 1970s. It’s still widely in use in Russia and the former Soviet countries, and there have been a number of fatal crashes in the past few years, and 66 serious incidents in total since the plane was introduced. But Russian aviation experts insist that the plane is safe and that the majority of the incidents, including Saturday’s crash, are down to human error.

“It’s a simple plane, it doesn’t have the latest design or equipment and it is very inefficient in its fuel consumption,” says Alexander Velovich, a Russian aviation expert. “But if you use it correctly, it is completely safe.”

Aeroflot phased the plane out last year and the liner made its final flight under the flag of the Russian national carrier on New Year’s Eve. It is still widely in use on medium-haul routes in Russia by the myriad of smaller airlines that operate in the country. The longest route the plane flies is from Moscow to Yakutsk, a six-hour journey of around 5,000km.

The last major accident involving a 154 in Russia was when a Pulkovo Airlines jet crashed near the Ukrainian city of Donetsk while en route from Anapa on the Russian Black Sea to Sochi in 2006. In this case, it seems to have been pilot error at fault again. “The pilots tried to evade a thunderstorm by climbing further than the plane’s maximum height,” says Velovich.

Indeed, most aviation experts say that the Tu-154 is no less safe than other aircraft of a similar vintage and range – but you won’t necessarily feel safe when flying in it. Because most of the planes are so old, their interiors look rickety. Luggage racks often have no doors to shut in baggage, so it can come flying out during turbulence. On most aircraft, the seats are fixed almost bolt upright. Many also have a curious design flaw: the plane is split into two cabins, but with one central heating system that makes the front cabin roasting hot while the rear cabin remains icy cold. On one flight I took from Moscow to Dushanbe, Tajikistan, this was so bad that everyone in the front cabin was dripping with sweat, but the stewardesses refused to turn the heating down – meanwhile in the rear cabin everyone was shivering under blankets.

Lech Kaczynski would have had no such problems on his plane – it had been given a luxury refit last year and was probably one of the more pleasant Tupolev interiors. The exterior was not quite so new, but for the moment not everyone is out to blame the plane.

“It’s classic ‘VIP on board’ syndrome,” says Velovich. “They were warned many times not to land there and the pilot will have checked with his passengers. Probably Kaczynski didn’t want to miss the ceremony and insisted that the plane should land there.”


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