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Russia grounds about 200 planes, cutting off distant regions

Amid safety concerns about Russia's aging fleet of airplanes, the Kremlin has decided to ground two Soviet-era models, a move that will curtail service to more distant parts of the country.

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"These aircraft were built in the USSR to be converted at a moment's notice to military purposes, and so they are much tougher than comparable Western-made craft," he says. "Many small airports around Russia can only be served by the An-24, and there are no obvious substitutes for it."

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There are over 300 small airports around Siberia, the far east and Russian north, often in places where there are no roads or railways and the only connection to the outside world is by air, he adds.

The Tu-134, a twin-jet medium haul jetliner comparable to a DC-9, entered service in 1967 and about 90 of them still serve regular air routes around Russia.

"The Tu-134 was and remains one of the most reliable planes in the history of Russian civil aviation," says Yury Gnatyuk, press spokesman for UTAir Express, a small Russian airline that flies 28 of the machines. "If [we] withdraw this plane from use, there is nothing to replace it with. The fact is that around Russia there are very many airports that are not adapted for modern Russian or foreign-built planes."

The Ukrainian-built turboprop An-24 has been in operation since 1960 and over 800 of them are still flying around the world, including more than 100 in Russia. According to Russian aviation experts, the An-24 is the mainstay of dozens of small operators that serve remote Russian communities that big airlines won't bother with.

The cost of outfitting a Tu-134 with the modern Automatic Air Collision Avoidance System and Terrain Awareness and Warning Systems demanded by this week's presidential decree would be about $200,000, or approximately the current market value of one of the planes, according to Russia's Transport Ministry. Refitting an An-24 would cost around $300,000, more than half the aircraft's market price of about $500,000.

"It's just not reasonable to re-equip these planes, but if not they will be banned by Jan. 1," says Vladimir Tyurin, chairman of the Russian Aircraft Owners and Pilot's Association, a public organization.

"I'm afraid passengers are going to suffer," from lost services and much higher ticket prices, he says.

Mr. Tyurin argues that there are plenty of old aircraft flying around the world that continue to be perfectly reliable as long as they are well-maintained and operated correctly. He says the government should strengthen regulations and build better infrastructure rather than ban whole classes of aircraft from the skies.

"This is a shoot-from-the-hip solution that will kill regional aviation in this country. Maybe the answer is that everyone should just move to Moscow?," he says.


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