After February's Saratov Airlines crash, are Russian carriers safe?

Recovery underway at the crash site Argunovo, about 80 kilometres southeast of Moscow.

The short answer is yes, probably, providing that you stick to the larger airlines like Aeroflot or S7 Airlines. However, it that doesn't deminish the depressing deja vous of yet another Russian plane crash, especially as it comes after a record-breaking 2017 in which there wasn't a single fatal crash of a passenger jet airliner anywhere in the world.

I say 'yet another' because a few years back it seemed that crashes in Russia had become monotonously regular. The situation has improved in recent years, but the collective memory when it comes to air crashes is long, and Aeroflot suffered a spate of accidents in the 1990s.

This accident hapened on February 11th 2018 and involved Russia's Saratov Airlines. One of its Russian-built Antonov-148s had taken off from Moscow's Domodedovo Airport on an 2 1/2 hour scheduled flight to Orsk in Southern Russia, before it came down in wintry conditions shortly after take off, killing all 65 passengers and six crew onboard. 

The crashed aircraft on a previous flight; Saratov Airlines Antonov-148 registration RA-61704. Photo Saratov Airlines

Russia had a poor airline safety record, which wasn't helped by the country's often atrocious winter weather and a feeling that some of the smaller carriers have poor maintenance standards. The real bogeyman was the idea that Soviet-built aircraft were inherently less safe than western-built models.

Either way, the vast majority of airlines based in Russia now fly the latest western-built Airbuses and Boeings and have retired all of their Soviet-era kit. Even the small carrier involved in the latest crash is moving over to new Brazilian built Embraer's.  

An Aeroflot Airbus A320. Photo Aeroflot

Aeroflot has improved training, service and safety. And despite its chequered past - it suffered 127 crashes since 1953 - it has made enough strides forward for The Telegraph to run an article in 2016 entitled - 'Aeroflot: from world's deadliest airline to one of the safest in the sky'. A good resource is Airline Ratings, which gives expert safety ratings on over 400 airlines. Aeroflot scores a safety rating of 6/7, which is the same as Air France, Air India, Kenya Airways, and S7. Incidentally real shockers with a safety score of just 1/7 includes Air Koryo of North Korea, and Nepal Airlines. 

A lot has indeed changed, and in the soft standard sense, Aeroflot is now a four star carrier in the Skytrax ranking system. This places the carrier as equal to dozens of other four-star carriers like Aer Lingus, Air France, British Airways, Emirates and Qantas.

Snazzy new crew uniforms to match the snazzy new livery. Photo Aeroflot

I’ve survived using Aeroflot several times, as many millions of other passenegers have throughout its 95 year history. These days it's even in the Star Alliance global affiliation of carriers, yet if there is an easy choice between a lesser Russian airline and the likes of BA, Lufthansa or the local but safe S7 Airlines airlines (which is a member of the OneWorld Alliance), then I'd tend to go for them.

S7 Siberian Airlines. Photo Aero Icarus/Flickr

That deals with the airline, but what about the safety of the actual plane that you are booked to fly on? Well if it's a well known and reputable airline, you don’t really need to worry. However, for smaller airlines in Russia - and also Africa, South America and parts of Asia, it’s good to know a little about the type of plane that you are travelling on.

The code on your itinerary will help here – a B777 is a Boeing 777 for example and has a tremedously nerve-soothing safety record, whereas YK-42 is a Yakolev Yak, which doesn't.

You won’t know the exact aircraft due to operate the flight, but look at Air Fleets, type in the airline, and it lists the fleet, and you may be able to get a good idea. Click on a few registrations of the plane type that you could be flying on and you’ll see the age of those planes and its previous owners, if they are second hand.

Aeroflot Boeing 777 at Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky Airport in Kamchatka. Photo Aeroflot

Attitudes to risk vary, but I wouldn’t be flying on anything too old; say more than 20 years would make me feel a bit nervous. And as for the Boeing 737-200 registration ZS-IJJ operated by InterAir of South Africa, well it was delivered to Cameroon Airlines in 1972, forget it! 

There’s no rule for assessing a plane’s previous owners either, but if it was bought second hand from Lufthansa or British Airways let’s say, then it will have been looked after. It’s not so good if you see a plane’s been passed around many lesser-known African airlines, where maintenance standards may be questionable.

Look too at the EU list of airlines that are banned from entering European airspace on the grounds of safety. If you can, avoid flying any of these airlines

One more thing...

This is going to sound ludicrous, but alas it’s horribly true. In March 1994, while captaining Aeroflot flight 593 from Moscow to Hong Kong, the pilot's two children were in the cockpit. The captain allowed his 16-year-old son to sit in the pilot’s seat, where he accidentally switched off the autopilot. The following loss of control led to a fatal nose dive and the plane ploughing into a Russian mountainside, killing all 63 passengers and 12 crew on board.