Russia's airline industry has been thrown into confusion by a presidential decision to permanently ground two Soviet-era workhorses, the Tupolev Tu-134 and the Antonov An-24, by year's end. The two planes are the backbone of the far-flung country's regional aviation.
Aviation experts say the ban, imposed in response to a recent spate of fatal accidents with the planes, could leave hundreds of small communities effectively cut-off from the world. The planes handle the bulk of airline traffic in Siberia and Russia's far east.
"I see this as a populist decision, made by the authorities in an effort to show the public they're concerned about flight safety," says Oleg Panteleyev, an expert with the online aviation journal Aviaport.ru. "But these planes are the basis of our regional aviation, and airlines cannot afford to replace them, or bring them up to new standards, on such short notice."
Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov announced the measure Wednesday, saying that the planes must either be grounded or re-equipped with expensive safety equipment, including mid-air and ground collision avoidance systems that cost almost as much as the planes are worth.
Last month a Tu-134 jetliner missed the runway at Petrozavodsk in western Russia and crashed, killing 47 of the 52 people aboard and reviving a long-running debate over the large numbers of obsolete Soviet-era planes still flying in Russia. An investigation blamed pilot error for the accident.
This week a turboprop An-24 caught fire and ditched in Siberia's Angara River killing five people aboard and injuring over 20.
A separate accident last weekend, in which a Volga River cruise ship sank, killing about 130 people, prompted President Dmitry Medvedev to order a full investigation into Russia's aging transport systems, including a full ban on the two types of aircraft.
But Magomed Tolboyev, a legendary Russian test pilot and honorary president of MAKS, Russia's leading air show, insists there is nothing wrong with the planes and that the fault for recent accidents lies with poor maintenance, decaying infrastructure, and substandard pilot training.
"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."
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.